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

Archive for October, 2008

A Series of Failures

The Passion account of St Matthew presents us with a series of failures, which in one sense are a reflection of our own lives and in another offer us some helpful lessons on how to do better. The first one is not really a failure—in fact it turns out to be quite the success—but it does set the stage for the severe crisis that precipitates all the other failures. This one belongs to Jesus Himself.

It happened in the Garden. Some time previously, and on three separate occasions, Jesus had predicted his suffering and death, and his rising from the dead—evidently with a certain amount of confidence. But when He went to Gethsemane, what happened? “He began to be sorrowful and troubled.” This was the first indication that Jesus was not going to glide majestically through his Passion. He said that his soul was “sorrowful unto death,” a phrase which does not exude unflappable self-confidence. Then, after his whole public ministry had inexorably led Him to this moment, a moment which inaugurated the climax of his whole life and mission on earth, He prayed: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” We can’t even begin to imagine the crushing weight of the sin and suffering of the world that was upon Him at that moment, one so horrifying that He could seek to be delivered from that which was the reason He was sent in the first place. We see something we thought we’d never see: a conflict between Jesus’ will and that of his Father. But here’s the success: “Nevertheless, not as I will but as You will.” That was surely the most courageous act ever placed in the history of mankind.

This teaches us something important. It’s not necessarily wrong to have an honest disagreement with the will of God. Even his own Son did, once anyway. But the crucial thing is that we must choose to accept the will of God whether we like it or not, whether we think we have a better idea or not. The grace is in the “yes,” and it makes all the difference between success and failure.

The other failures are just plain failures, though one of them did have some redeeming value. Peter and the other disciples are the ones we’ll look at first. Peter was somewhat indignant that Jesus would burst his boast about never falling away from Him by predicting a three-fold denial. Let us look here at what Peter and the other disciples said, and what actually happened. The ellipsis in the quote covers about an hour of time: “Peter said to him, ‘Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And so said all the disciples… Then all the disciples forsook him and fled” (Mt. 26:35, 56). They all insisted they would stand by Him; then almost immediately they all abandoned Him. There’s a text in one of our Holy Week services that expresses Peter’s failure about as clearly and concisely as possible. In it he says: “I said I would keep the faith but I have not kept it.” Is this not our own life story, at least to some extent? Despite our good intentions, and perhaps even confident protestations, we just don’t come through. We say one thing and do another. We fail. For some reason, if I’m tempted to judge or look down on someone else’s foibles or failures, sometimes this line from the old Beatles’ song, Nowhere Man, enters my mind: “Isn’t he a bit like you and me…”

Peter at least knew what to do with his failure: turn back to God with it and weep in repentance. Thus he was eventually restored. Judas did not fare so well, and his failure, as least as far as human observation can discern, was absolute. He didn’t merely lose his nerve and abandon Christ to avoid incrimination or bodily harm. He planned his betrayal and accepted money for it. It was premeditated, not motivated by the self-preservation instinct. It is true that Judas, like Peter, later recognized his sin and felt remorse over it. But he didn’t give the Lord a chance to forgive him for it. He became his own judge and executioner. Thus leaving God out of it, he came to the worst possible end. We need to learn to let the Judge be the judge, for it is likely that we are harsher than He ever would be. He forgives our crimes more easily than we do. Repentance is always preferable to despair. Again, it is the difference between success and failure.

There were other failures. The chief priests and elders—and the other “witnesses” who accused Jesus falsely—failed en masse, both to recognize their Messiah and to treat Him fairly even though they disagreed with Him. Their failure left blood on their hands. A similar thing could be said for Pilate, who tried unsuccessfully to wash his hands of that Righteous Man’s blood. Pilate failed in a different way, though. He had no argument with a Jewish Messiah; he couldn’t care less. But he failed in courage and justice. He became a coward, a crowd-pleaser, someone who was willing to sacrifice an innocent life just to calm the hot tempers of a people he didn’t feel like dealing with anyway. Many of the individual and collective failures of today’s society are not essentially different from those who condemned Jesus and those who ratified the condemnation and put Him to death.

Jesus’ ultimate “failure”—the end of his ministry, the scattering of his followers, the shameful execution as if He were a criminal—became his ultimate success: the bearing of the sin of the world and the re-opening of the gates of Paradise, so that the Holy Spirit could descend and the eventual multitude of believers could ascend.

Some failures are obvious, some only apparent. All can be turned to the good through faith, hope, love, and repentance. We have to be honest and take our place in the ranks of those who failed to stand by the Lord and keep his word. But we can also stand in the ranks of the repentant; we can choose to accept the will of the Father even when we’d rather run from it. We can take up our crosses and follow Jesus, failures and sad-sacks in the eyes of the world, but secretly laughing all the way to Paradise. Perhaps we couldn’t fully savor success if we hadn’t first tasted the bitterness of failure. We’re all sinners, so we all know failure. But turning the page of the Passion account we find the Resurrection. Lo, He is with us always, so that our sorrow can be turned into joy, our failure into success, for the Risen Christ is the One who makes all things new.

A Matter of the Heart

A friend of mine was here a week or so ago and we talked of various and sundry things. One of them was the many-faceted ways in which God reveals Himself in the Scriptures. I offered two examples from different ends of the spectrum. One comes from the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18, in which the master, having forgiven his servant a huge debt and then discovered that this same servant refused to forgive a fellow servant a tiny debt, “handed him over to the torturers.” Jesus goes on to say that his Father will do exactly the same thing to us if we do not forgive from the heart. The other example was that of the father of the prodigal son, who forgave him without even asking for an account of his evildoing—indeed, not even giving him a chance to confess but immediately lavishing abundant love and gifts upon him.

So, I mused, this very same God will hand someone over to the torturers in one case and overflow with mercy and love in another. Yet it is not for us to embrace one image of God and reject another, because they are both found in the Scriptures and hence are both true revelations of who God is and what He does. As I wondered aloud about all this, the conversation went as follows. She said:

“Isn’t it simply a matter of the heart?”

“What do you mean?” I cluelessly queried.

“Well, the way God dealt with them depended upon what was in their hearts. The evil-hearted man was punished and the one with the repentant heart was warmly received.”

So, the nature of our encounter with God will largely depend upon the condition of our hearts. That flicked the switch of a little interior light and gave me pause for further reflection (and hence for this blog post!). Perhaps we sometimes strain our brains wondering how God really is when we ought to be paying more attention to how we really are! God is God; we’ll never fully figure Him out. His ways and thoughts are not ours. But we do have many examples of how He deals with people, and that ordinarily depends on, well, people!

God responds to us according to what He finds in us. It is true that without his grace we cannot be saved, so in the fundamental order of things He takes the initiative. But very much depends on us when it comes to the actual outcome of our lives and hence our eternal destinies. God alone is the Judge, but our very lives provide the evidence. The content of our lives is what will manifest one or another aspect of God’s face in our regard. Look at the parable of the Last Judgment (Mt. 25). How did those who refused to minister in some way to the needy encounter God? It was quite terrifying: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!” But how did those who spent their lives serving others experience God? It couldn’t have been more warm and joyful: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!” God is the same God in both cases. But He found different things in the hearts of those gathered before Him—in some He found evil and in some He found good. So the same God was in some cases like the master who handed the wicked servant over to the torturers, and in other cases He was like the father who received his long-lost son and held a banquet for him.

A priest I know once told me that God is primarily just in his dealings with us. If we don’t take the trouble to implore his mercy, then we will receive strict justice. But, since God is love, He wants to pour out his mercy upon us. He’s just looking for hearts that are open to his benevolence, who ask for his grace and mercy—in short, hearts that are turned towards Him and are thus ready to do his will. The face of God that we encounter has a lot to do with what is already in us. We should never think or assert that any image of God given us in the Scriptures, whether Old or New Testament, is not a true one. But we should also be aware that it is largely up to us whether or not it will be necessary for us ever to encounter the fiercer ones! The face of God is frightening to the wicked, because its searching light uncovers the evil in their hearts (see Jn. 3:19-20). Those who are intent on doing evil, who refuse to love or forgive or serve others, who serve rather their own pride or greed or lusts, will reject or at least ignore God. God will not seem pleasant or loving to them, because He must rain on their parade in his efforts to try to open their hearts and get them to return to Him.

But if our hearts are already with the Lord, if we love Him and do our best to cooperate with his grace as we love and serve others, then we will know his loving kindness and mercy. We will not need to entertain any fierce images of God (even though for some they are true, at least temporarily) simply because we don’t provoke God’s wrath. It’s a matter of the heart and what the heart bears within it. God punishes not repentant prodigals but unforgiving and ruthless hirelings. A pure, faithful, and loving heart will know God as He most wishes to be known: a loving and merciful Father, a strong and gentle Savior, the Source and overflowing fountain of life and love. If there’s no place in one’s heart for all this, one will not recognize the love of God. In that case God may have to employ a sterner strategy to shake a little sense into us, before it’s too late and we’re standing with our hardened hearts before his throne of judgment.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be, said the Lord. He’s trying to tell us that it’s a matter of the heart: our life, our image of Him, our relationship to Him, and his dealings with us. If God is our treasure, there will be plenty of room in our hearts for Him, and He will act appropriately toward what He finds in us. But if there is evil in us, He will attempt to get it out of us, and He may not spare us the pain of the surgery, especially if we are somewhat resistant. But let us at least not be as those over whom the Lord lamented to St Faustina in a vision (and these were monks and nuns!), whose hearts were so hard that He said that even though He still granted them his grace, it was like water poured over a rock and never penetrated their souls.

Perhaps it is time to summon the courage to take a look within our hearts and see what we find. See if there is anything in there that is distorting our image of God or that provokes something in Him that He’d rather not have to direct toward us. God loves us but He hates evil, so he will be unrelenting in going after any evil that is concealed within the hearts of those whom He loves. For He wants to welcome us all into the Kingdom He has prepared for us.

So let us not pick and choose only our favorite images of God from Scripture. They are all true, though it is not necessary that we personally encounter them all. But let us be careful about what we believe and how we live. If you want to meet only the gentle and kind and merciful Lord, it’s up to you. For it is a matter of the heart. Yours.

Establishing the Kingdom

When Jesus began his public ministry, the first thing He did was to start proclaiming the Kingdom of God. There are two reasons for this. The main one is that in the person of Christ the Kingdom of God had arrived. It was “at hand,” and even “in the midst” of the people. This presence of the Kingdom demanded a response from the people, who presumably would wish to embrace it if only they knew how.

But there is another reason for the proclamation of the Kingdom, and it is related to the first. If the Kingdom of God was to be established or manifested so that people could embrace and enter it, the kingdom of the devil would have first to be overthrown. Christ called the devil “the prince of this world” and St Paul even went so far as to call him “the god of this world” because ever since the fall of Adam and Eve and their banishment from Paradise, this world has been in the power of sin and hence has been, to a significant extent, the kingdom of the devil. God had created the world good and had given it over to the stewardship of the first man and woman, but by their disobedience they handed it all over to the devil, and it remained that way for millennia—until Christ came and decided to reclaim the world for his Father, to take back what the devil had stolen, to establish definitively the Kingdom of God.

As if to emphasize this, the first miracle that Jesus worked after he began his public ministry was the casting out of a demon (Lk. 4:31-37). He was, as it were, putting satan on notice that his dreadful kingdom was coming to an end, for the Son of God had entered as man into the world which He had created. So the first step in establishing the Kingdom of God was to drive out the devil and his pretensions to sovereignty over the souls created by God. In today’s Gospel (Lk. 8:26-39), we find another instance of Jesus casting out demons, to liberate and heal the soul of the possessed man and to cleanse the land of the evil that had been reigning there. This story is told in some detail, and we ought to pay attention to it.

We immediately see some of the characteristics of life in the kingdom of satan. The possessed man wore no clothes, which in this case is a symbol of his loss of human dignity and reduction to the state of an animal. He lived not in a house, the evangelist says, but among the tombs. Jesus called the devil a “murderer from the beginning” and so death is the hallmark of his reign. Jesus came to grant abundant life, but the devil seeks only to kill and destroy (see Jn 10:10). The man was chained and fettered, but he pulled apart all his bonds, suggesting that all ordinary restraints that are necessary for virtuous human living were disregarded, and he was driven by the demons into the desert, far away from human fellowship and charity.

Now at the approach of Jesus the demons inhabiting the man were greatly disturbed, and they asked Jesus what He had to do with them—as if the Lord were trespassing in their territory! In a parallel account, they beg Him not to torment them “before the time.” So they weren’t ready to accept that the time had in fact come already, the time for their kingdom to be overthrown. They were hoping to reign until the end of the world. But they were thrown into confusion and terror when Jesus approached, for unlike most of the people, they knew who He was. So they begged Him not to send them back to the abyss. What could they do in Hell but endure torment and despair?—but here on earth they could wreak all kinds of havoc and have the satisfaction of tormenting others. So they wanted to stay. They realized that Jesus was going to eject them from the man who was made in God’s image, but they must have thought they could still amuse themselves by inhabiting pigs—which was still much preferable to returning to Hell. Jesus seemed to cut them a little slack here, but in fact He knew that even the pigs would not be able to tolerate them and they’d shortly be back in the abyss anyway.

So Jesus succeeded in extending the presence of the Kingdom of God that much further, and he won Himself a new disciple as a kind of first-fruits of the Gentiles. He wasn’t yet ready to incorporate a Gentile into his immediate band of followers, so Jesus made the newly-liberated man an apostle to the rest of the Gentiles in that unclean land. The man went about proclaiming all that Jesus had done for him.

We ought to reflect a little on the mystery of the Kingdom of God and how, in order for it to be firmly established anywhere, the presence of satan has to be driven out. We also ought to be aware of the tragedy of our times in which people seem to want to do just the opposite. They welcome the works of the devil and, like the townspeople in today’s Gospel, implore Jesus to depart from the land.

Even a brief look at the offerings of Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general will reveal how much the devil and his various images are welcomed into people’s lives, how people feed on evil and call it entertainment. I recently read something about the actor who played the role of a profoundly evil character in the hugely popular film The Dark Knight. Shortly after filming the movie, he died of an overdose of a variety of drugs. Playing that role had contributed to his destruction. It had become something of an obsession; he was sleeping only two hours a night and couldn’t keep his mind from racing. He had said that the only way he can act is to become totally absorbed into the role he is playing, entering the skin of the character, as it were. The author of the article suggested that by immersing himself in the role of an evil character, he “might well have gazed too deeply into the abyss.” The author also quoted someone who said: “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Many people nowadays have a morbid fascination with horror and evil. In four weeks that film alone raked in almost half a billion dollars. But when you look at evil, evil looks at you. You make yourself vulnerable to the works of the devil and, in the worst case scenario, could end up like the possessed man in the Gospel.

There are two things we should keep in mind here. First of all, Jesus has come to liberate us from the power of evil, and by his death and resurrection has essentially disarmed the devil, so that, as St Paul told the Romans, sin no longer has dominion over us. But Jesus didn’t take away our free will, so we have the terrible option of giving the devil’s power back to him! If “the whole world is under the power of the evil one” as St John wrote—decades after the Resurrection—it is because people have willingly become his subjects. The power of Christ is still mightily at work in this world, and He is still casting out demons, but his work is hindered by the many who still wish to peer into the abyss, who leave openings in their minds and hearts for the devil to get in and re-establish his own infernal kingdom. We have to side absolutely for Christ and absolutely against the devil and all his works, and to totally avoid anything that glorifies evil in any way—even, and perhaps especially, in the guise of entertainment, because people are off guard when they are merely seeking to be amused and thus do not put on the armor God against words and images that come from the prince of darkness.

The other thing to remember is that, unless we are specially trained and commissioned by the Church to confront the evil one directly or even to spend a lot of time studying the strategies of the devil, we shouldn’t presume to try. Here are a couple more quotes from different sources: “No man can concentrate his attention upon evil, or even upon the idea of evil, and remain unaffected. The effects which follow too constant and intense a concentration upon evil are always disastrous.” “There is always the risk of contamination, one way or another. The more closely we rub shoulders with or against evil, the more likely it is that we may become evil ourselves.”

Now we still have to fight evil as part of our Christian life. But we have to know how to do it properly. We don’t fight evil by looking it in the face, fighting fire with fire in a show of strength. We fight evil by looking Jesus in the face and never turning our gaze toward the darkness. It’s not for nothing that Scripture tells us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and to set our minds on things of Heaven. Only Christ has the power to overthrow the kingdom of satan and to establish the Kingdom of God. Our victory over the devil is not obtained by charging toward him with guns blazing. Our victory is obtained by clinging to Christ in faith and love and purity of heart, calling upon his name with confidence, praising and worshiping Him so that our souls will be so full of his grace that there will be no room for the slightest inroads of evil—thus the powers of darkness must go somewhere else.

This spiritual battle was not easy even for Jesus when He walked this earth. Note in the Gospel text that the demons begged Jesus not to torment them after He had already commanded them to leave. The Son of God had to command them a second time before they actually went. We should humble ourselves and not presume to face the demons on our own. But full authority in Heaven and on Earth belongs to Christ since his Resurrection, and He has declared that He is with us always. So we should have no fear, but we should close all doors to the dark powers so we don’t place ourselves at a disadvantage. Of ourselves we are weak and vulnerable, but in union with Jesus we are safe. We thus join Him in his ongoing victory over evil, in his reclaiming of the whole world for the glory of his Father—for the everlasting establishment of the Kingdom of God.

Why did God Send His Son?

I read Pope John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope when it first came out some years ago. As usually happens, by now I’ve forgotten it in its entirety. But we’re hearing it again in the refectory these days here at the monastery, and I’d like to share with you something that seemed to take on fresh life upon hearing it again.

We’re all familiar with the text of the Gospel (even if we’re familiar with no other) that reads: “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This is the way many people are introduced to the mystery of Christ and of our salvation in Him. The Pope also had his reflections on this text, but he explained it in a unique way. Usually we understand that because sin had ruptured our relationship with God, we needed a Redeemer if we were not to experience our just and eternal punishment, so God sent his Son Jesus to save us. This is entirely true, and the Pope affirms it. But the reason that God had to send his Son into the world is even more fundamental than the mystery of iniquity.

The reason is this: the world cannot make man happy, and it cannot save his soul. This is actually something of a bombshell, even though on the surface it might seem a truism. Before we even need to deal with the fact of sin—and the fact that sin, if not atoned for and forgiven, will exclude us from Heaven—we have to see that we are in utter need of God anyway, because neither happiness nor salvation can come from this world, from any created reality. God sent his Son because only God can give us eternal happiness. Despite the natural beauty and richness of this world, it cannot give us—who are created in the image of God and hence can only be fulfilled in Him—complete or lasting happiness. So for us to have eternal life and joy, God had to intervene, He had to send a Savior to lead us to the only “world” that could satisfy our thirst for eternity, for everlasting love: the Kingdom of Heaven.

I have at times thought that I might be able to find happiness in this world: if I had a lot of money, a comfortable home overlooking the ocean, good health, good friends, good food, and every possible satisfaction this world could offer. Some people do have all that and yet are not happy. They get addicted to alcohol or drugs, they get depressed and/or commit suicide. They feel empty and they don’t know why. I sometimes cannot understand that, thinking that if I had all that, I’d be really happy!—or at least quite content. But I think the reason is that for me it would be an “all this and Heaven, too” proposition. I’ve never been an atheist; I’ve never been without some awareness or belief in God, at least in general terms; I’ve never been without some sort of hope in a life to come. I can take or leave those material benefits because I’ve already got the “bottom line” benefit of hope for eternal life. The rest is icing on the cake, and if someone gives it to me, I’ll take it! There’s not a fearful, gaping abyss of death haunting the outskirts of my consciousness, waiting to swallow up my happiness as I begin to age and become less able to enjoy life’s pleasures. This cannot be said for many who have the riches and pleasures of the world but do not know God, for the lack of God is precisely the gnawing and even terrifying emptiness that drives them to drink or to suicide. They have everything that is supposed to make them happy, yet they are not, and this is maddening.

So the Pope was right. God sent his Son into this world because this world isn’t enough. This world cannot make us happy and it cannot give us eternal life. Only God can, and the sooner everyone realizes that, the sooner the world will in fact become a happier place, whether or not one has the goods and pleasures of this passing life. It is true that things have become much more complicated and confusing because of sin, and repentance is necessary along with the enlightenment as to the insufficiency of this world. But I think that it is good to see the whole picture. God’s presence and activity in this world is more than merely mopping up the mess we’ve made. The atonement for our sin is indispensable and absolutely necessary for our salvation. But it’s not the only element of it. God also wants us to discover the simple truth about his own all-sufficiency and the world’s radical insufficiency. The Pope acknowledged that God pronounced his “very good” on what He had made, but he went on to say that the goodness of creation does not guarantee our salvation, especially if we make an idol of it. We have to discover in God’s love for us—and his desire that we enjoy this love forever—the deeper reason for his sending his Son into this world to save it.

The sin of many unbelievers is precisely in their thinking that this world alone can bring them happiness, that there is no God who is the source of happiness and who alone can give the true and everlasting joy. The world with all its blessings is a gift, but a temporary, limited one. The gift is supposed to direct us to the Giver, the creation to the Creator. To embrace the creation and ignore the Creator is to “fall short of the glory of God,” which is the general definition of the sin from which mankind had to be redeemed (cf. Rom. 3:23).

Yes, Jesus saved us by bearing our sins on the Cross and calling us to believe and obey Him. But God sent Him to teach us as well, to open the eyes of the blind—or at least to correct the myopia of those who end their search for happiness within the confines of this world. It’s OK to love the world that God so loved. But we fall very short if we do not primarily love the God who made the world as a means for communion with Him, as a stepping-stone to the world that does not end. God had to send his Son, because the world as such was not enough, for it passes away. If you have everything but do not have God, you have nothing. If you have nothing but have God, you have everything—everything that ultimately matters, anyway. And when our lives in this world finally come to a close, we will discover that the things which ultimately matter are indeed the only things that matter at all.

Protect Us From…

On October 1 we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, a feast proper to the Slavic Byzantine Churches. Since we celebrated the Divine Liturgy at our outdoor shrine to Our Lady, I didn’t have a prepared text to preach from—which is why you didn’t see it that day on this blog! But I did want to share a few things about it, so now I’m trying to remember what I said and to put some thoughts down here.

I do remember a couple of liturgical texts I used—since I wrote those down—so here’s the first: “Seeing me in the grasp of laziness and the torpor of pleasures, the enemy arrogantly boasts with the hope of despoiling me. But you are there, O immaculate Virgin, to protect me by your watchful intercession.” I guess I’ll leave it to you to meditate on “the torpor of pleasures.” What I wanted to point out is that while the devil prepares to go in for the kill, Our Lady is there. She protects us by her “watchful intercession.”

I like that expression, because it opens up a bit the mystery of “holy protection.” First of all, as a mother, she is watchful. Mothers keep vigil when their children are sick or in trouble. Second, her protection is a fruit of her intercession. That means that whatever power or grace she has to help us comes directly and only from God. In order to exercise the power of protection over us, she first has to ask and receive it from God. This is dramatically illustrated in the event which occasioned the establishment of this feast early in the 10th century. The city of Constantinople was besieged by barbarians and was in grave danger of falling. The people gathered in one of the main churches of the city (dedicated to the Mother of God) to keep an all-night vigil to implore God’s mercy and help. During the vigil, a holy man in the congregation was granted a vision: the Mother of God entered the church, accompanied by St John the Baptist and St John the Apostle, and numerous angels. She entered the sanctuary, knelt down and prayed for a long time, and only then arose, removed her veil and spread it out over the people, symbolizing her protection. Needless to say, the city was saved and the attackers repelled.

The point is that her “watchful intercession” obtained the grace from God to protect the city. She and God are “on the same page.” There’s a certain strain of piety (which does not reflect correct Catholic theology) that pictures Our Lady as somehow coming between God and us. God wants to smite us for our sins, but she holds back his mighty arm of justice through her prayers. Wait a minute—she’s there to protect us from evil and harm, not to protect us from God! What she does is always and only his will. She is the handmaid of the Lord for all eternity and she will always say: let it be done according to your word. So the grace of her protection is a gift of God to us, obtained through her prayers. It is true that God alone is the Just Judge and Mary isn’t, but if she is the Mother of Mercy, it is only because God is first “the Father of mercies and God of all consolation” (2Cor. 1:3).

The other text is the following: “Seek out good and avoid evil, O my soul, in your diligence to do what is pleasing to God: the Virgin Mother assures you of her intercession and her fearless protection in her compassion and goodness.” The first phrase is perhaps not extraordinary, but there are two things I like about the second. It is rare in that it is the Church speaking words of consolation directly to us. Usually in such prayers, we are frantically calling out for help and deliverance. But here a calm assurance is given us: “the Virgin Mother assures you…” So we can rest in that. The other thing I like is the phrase “fearless protection.” It brings to mind a lioness or a she-bear defending her cubs. There’s nothing like the fierce loyalty of a mother’s love to give one confidence. Her kids can be the most worthless clods on the planet, but she will defend them with her life. A good mother will, of course, also discipline and instruct her children, but she will never give up on them and she will always be there if they need her.

In the past, I’ve mentioned several ways that Our Lady protects us, some of the enemies from which she shields us, be they visible or invisible, spiritual or material. But there’s something essential I’ve neglected to mention, one of the main enemies from which we need protection—ourselves! The immortal Pogo once said: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” We have to be protected from our own sinful inclinations, our harmful desires, our selfishness and obtuseness and all the obstacles and impediments within us to God’s grace. It’s easier to be protected even from the devil than from all that! The devil has to attack from outside (unless we happen to be possessed, but let’s for the moment give ourselves the benefit of the doubt), but all that other stuff we willingly hold within ourselves. God does not meddle with our free will, so if we are to be protected from ourselves there’s something we have to do first.

In order, then, to be well-disposed to benefit from Our Lady’s watchful intercession and to rest assured of her fearless protection, what must we do? It’s not enough merely to exist, as if this automatically wins us the status of children of God and heirs to Heaven. We have to make some choices to facilitate the flow of divine grace into our lives. I wrote a couple weeks ago about God’s invitation to us to relinquish our rights to life as we would have it, and to put everything into his hands, trusting in his wisdom, providence, and love for us—and not trusting in ourselves and our shortsighted vision, limited wisdom, and general selfishness about most things.

The Mother of God can effectively be a mother to us when we have surrendered ourselves to God as she did: “let it be done to me according to your word.” It’s a lot harder to protect a rebel than a faithful child or servant. The rebel just isn’t interested in heavenly grace and so his will is turned elsewhere. God will call him back but won’t force him back. So we have to give ourselves over to God, relinquish our perceived “rights” and take our place in his great family. Then the Mother will surround us with her fearless protection, the grace for which she obtains through her watchful intercession. Then, as the liturgy says, the Virgin Mother will assure us of her protection; she will be there when the devil threatens; and she will even keep us from getting in our own way! If she can protect Constantinople from mad barbarians, she can protect us from all that would hinder our salvation. This is God’s gift; it’s there for the asking—and for the sacrifice of our willfulness. Be assured.

Well, that’s the short version, as far as I can remember. Interestingly, I discovered that it was evidently not God’s will that I post the homily on the feast. I really was trying to get some thoughts down for the blog to have something to put up on the feast, but things got so busy I just couldn’t manage it in time. As it turned out, the post that in fact would have been postponed if I’d inserted the one for the feast contained something that one reader (as I later found out) had to see on that precise day, or else an opportunity for spiritual benefit would have been lost. See, Our Lady even protected me from doing something in her honor, because at that moment the will of God was otherwise! She knew this post would be up today, anyway…

Danny Gospel

I recently finished reading the new novel Danny Gospel, by David Athey (2008, Bethany House). I thought I’d offer a few comments here, since the author had graciously sent me a copy (and humbly asked me first if I even wanted one!). It’s not your average, ordinary Christian novel, but then you probably aren’t interested in average, ordinary novels, and I probably wouldn’t take the time to review one!

I don’t want to say too much about the story itself and risk giving it away, so I’ll try to keep it more or less general. Danny’s life as a mail carrier seems rather ordinary on the surface, but it’s his inner life that is extraordinary. Danny Gospel is about love—love lost, love pursued, love discovered as surprise packages from Heaven and from unexpected places on Earth. Danny is a lover above all, a somewhat quixotic lover, and something of a “fool for Christ.” His goal, however, is not only to find the love that briefly touched and set afire his heart, but also to give love selflessly all along the way, heedless of personal sacrifice. His life has been marked by suffering, loss, and estrangement, yet Heaven seems to call him in many (and mystical) ways to transcend the brute fact of pain and to “sing a new song,” one undergirded by faith and hope, a song that finds its finale only in love.

Life as song seems to be a recurring theme. Danny’s family had once spent years together singing Gospel music, and fragments of the old spirituals keep turning up in the story as the very tempo of Danny’s life, as inbreaking moments of meaning and insight that keep him on his quest for perfect love. They buoy his spirits, enabling him to share his gift with others—though his sometimes ingenuously good-hearted efforts serve only to land him in more and more trouble. The wholehearted pursuit of both God and love tend to make one a bit “crazy” in the eyes of a world that doesn’t really want to understand—or is afraid to take that leap of faith out of the usual confines of daily life. But the most genuine characters in the story seem to be those who have been touched by a bit of that “craziness” of divine and human love.

It took me a little while to settle into the story. You have to be ready for a story that is not merely unbroken narrative, but the unfolding of an inner life full of memories and flashbacks, of finding meaning and God in some rather curious and even fanciful ways. As soon as I became comfortable with this style, I became all the more eager to follow Danny’s adventures and to see how it would all turn out.

Catholic sacramental themes are present, though rather subtle. Indeed, the author himself has admitted to me that the whole story has been carefully layered and textured, so that even some astute critics have not understood the deeper meanings concealed beneath the surface of the events of the story. Not being too astute myself, I have evidently missed some of the meaning as well, but after a brief exchange with the author, I appreciate it all the more.

Even if you don’t entirely “get it” on the first reading, I think you’ll find it to be an enjoyable story, one that communicates the determination of life to triumph over death, of joy to triumph over sorrow, and perhaps the mystical (and even the whimsical) to triumph over the mundane facts of life in middle America. God has a way of gathering the scattered fragments of one’s life and creatively rearranging them in ways one could not foresee.

Danny Gospel is a different kind of novel because it tells its story in a manner that is at once light and even humorous in places, yet poignant and heart-rending in others. I guess that is part of what makes it, despite its sometimes dreamlike quality, resonate as real in the hearts of those who know the sorrow and the joy and the unpredictability of life. You may find yourself at times cheering and at times wincing at Danny’s spontaneous leaps into unexpected adventure, which often enough seem to transpire on the frontier of Heaven and Earth. So if you’re finding your life to be just a bit too average and ordinary, perhaps it’s time to read Danny Gospel. “If you sing your life, you pray it twice, through the dark days and the sun-filled nights…”

Our Esteemed Selves

Be good to yourself. Believe in yourself. Affirm yourself. You are beautiful. You are good. Don’t let others’ mistreatment or misunderstanding of you hinder your self-realization. These are some of the mantras of today’s cult of self-esteem and self-affirmation. They may not sound all that bad on the surface, but perhaps there is something wrong, and ultimately fruitless, in this approach.

I hope you haven’t yet tired of me quoting Elisabeth Elliot, but she has some insights on the subject I’d like to share here. I’m not interested in contrasting one psychological approach with another, and neither is she. She would like to contrast the approach of the Gospel with that of the modern self-realization gurus. One rather humorous quote (perhaps it could be a bumper sticker) comes from H.L. Mencken: “Self-respect—the secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious.”

It may be true in some cases of severe trauma or abuse that people are so damaged that they find themselves enslaved to a kind of pathological self-hatred that distorts their perception of reality and keeps them from thinking that God (or anyone else) could love them. Such may need to swing the pendulum in the other direction in order to find the balance. The following comments, however, do not apply to extraordinary cases, but to the more or less average person (that is to say the more or less dysfunctional person, because original sin has made all of us dysfunctional in some ways). Spiritually seen, it is pride that is at the average person’s desire for affirmation and a higher level of self-esteem. I’ll let Mrs Elliot take over for a while (from Keep a Quiet Heart).

“As I paused and pondered I thought of the boy king Uzziah who, taking the throne at sixteen, made such a good start at obeying God and was ‘greatly helped until he became powerful… His pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God’ (2Chronicles 26:15-16, NIV) and died a leper, excluded from the temple of the Lord. It was at the time of that ignominious death that the prophet Isaiah received his commission from God, for which he was prepared first by a vision of the Lord Himself, high and exalted. The very doorposts shook at the sound of the voices of the seraphim, ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ and the prophet, in that awful revelation of the holiness of God, was given an instant and terrible self-revelation which wrenched from him the cry, ‘Woe is me!… I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips… and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’ (Isaiah 6:5, NIV).

“That self of which the conscious image (of an honest man) is not merely ‘low’ or ‘poor’ but twisted, maimed, tortured, ruined—can it find wholeness and healing merely by sweet affirmation? It took fire from God’s altar to cleanse Isaiah’s lips. It took the total immolation of the Lamb to take away the sin of the world. Is the cross now obsolete?

“‘Beware of false prophets,’ Jesus warned… I know of nothing more agitating to the soul, nothing that so unsettles and disquiets, as the contemplation of the self. If I succeed in improving my self-image by minimizing my faults, I may find the peace that the world can give, but I will end up in spiritual turmoil…

“As always, we must hold up whatever the world is saying to the straightedge of Scripture in order to see if it’s crooked. The ‘gospel’ according to self-gurus, by which many will testify to having been helped, is very simple and, I believe, very crooked. The pathway to fulfillment is straight and narrow, and it begins at the cross where (as in Pilgrim’s Progress) Christian drops his burden: the burden of sin, deep-rooted, infectious, malignant, death-dealing sin, the terrible root of all those ‘bad feelings’… ‘When anyone is united to Christ there is a new world (or a new act of creation); the old order has gone and a new order has already begun’ (2Corinthinans 5:17, NEB).

“That new order is a far cry from the notion of self-acceptance which has taken hold of the minds of many Christians. Any message which makes the cross redundant is anti-Christian. The original sin, pride, is behind my ‘poor self-image,’ for I felt that I deserved better than I got, which is exactly what Eve felt! So it was pride, not poor self-image, that had to go. If I’m so beautiful and lovable, what was Jesus doing up there, nailed to the cross and crowned with thorns? Why all that hideous suffering for the pure Son of God? Here’s why: There was no other way to deliver us from the hell of our own proud self-loving selves, no other way out of the bondage of self-pity and self-congratulation. How shall we take our stand beneath the cross of Jesus and continue to love the selves that put Him there? How can we survey the wondrous cross and at the same time feed our pride? No. It won’t work. Jesus put it simply: If you want to be My disciple, you must leave self behind, take up the cross, and follow Me.”

What struck me most, and what perhaps we all ought to meditate on, especially if our self-esteem seems not as high as it should be and we think we ought to feel better about ourselves, is this: “If I’m so beautiful and lovable, what was Jesus doing up there, nailed to the cross and crowned with thorns? … There was no other way to deliver us from the hell of our own proud self-loving selves, no other way out of the bondage of self-pity and self-congratulation.” It’s a reality check. The world doesn’t owe us a good self-image, and (speaking in general terms and excluding real atrocities) we pretty much deserve what we get, simply because we are sinners living in exile outside the gates of Paradise. Now Christ in his grace and love has considerably sweetened our exile, and in fact has even proclaimed the eventual and glorious end of it! Knowing this, it is all the more important that we don’t try to build our houses on sand, as it were, taking the cue from those who expend their efforts (and try to gain our allegiance) in making us more comfortable and self-satisfied here and now, while ignoring or even eschewing the Cross—which is the only way out of the existential mess in which we find ourselves.  The cult of self-esteem is for unbelievers.  It may help make this life more tolerable, but it won’t save anyone’s soul.

The solution has to fit the problem. If the problem were nothing more than some emotional or perceptual imbalance, then sure, call out the gurus and let them make you feel better about yourself. But that’s not the core problem. The core problem is sin and its many tentacles and all its deleterious effects. “I’m OK, you’re OK” is not the solution to our main problem, which is a spiritual one. Jesus Christ, and faith in Him and in the power of his death and resurrection to make of us a new creation—that is the solution to the problem! So here is the answer to your poor self-image: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

We were created in God’s image, and after we disfigured that, God sent his Son to restore it. Therein lies our ultimate worth. Feel good about what Jesus has done for you and in you, and live accordingly. Then you’ll feel good about yourself, that is, about the new creation He has wrought in you. It is right to hold the unregenerate self in low esteem. But to the extent you renounce your sinful self and enter into union with your Savior, you really are beautiful; you really are good. Affirm it.

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