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

Archive for May, 2010

One Jewel, Many Facets

I almost entitled this “The Many Faces of Our Lady,” but then I realized I was going to deal with more than faces.  And, after all, the face is a kind of expression of the whole person in all her dimensions. In fact, I’ll be using here a figure of speech known as synecdoche, in which a part of something refers to the whole.  You’ll see what I mean.  For the various facets of the jewel known as the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, I’ll be borrowing from traditions both East and West, for her truth and beauty cannot be contained within any one spiritual, liturgical, or artistic tradition.  The mystery of Mary as virgin and mother, handmaid and queen, has captured the hearts and imaginations of artists and poets and countless Christians since the early centuries of the Church, and love for her is still a flame in the hearts of millions worldwide.

The images (usually icons) of the Mother of God in the Byzantine tradition tend to emphasize her mystery and majesty, her transcendent quality that is not expressed in naturalistic images.  In the Latin tradition, her images (usually statues, but also paintings) tend to be more humanly realistic and warm.  There is room in the Church and in the human heart for both of these ways of seeing and approaching Our Lady.

In the East, almost all images of the Mother include an image of the Son, for He is the reason for her holiness and glory and the veneration that is due her as the Mother of the Lord.  Even though the style is often quite formal, the relationship between Mother and Son is sometimes expressed in tender, almost playful ways.  This helps us understand that our relationship to her, while being reverent and respectful, ought also to be tender and spontaneous, for she is Mother as well as Queen.

Having taken a brief look at the face of Our Lady, let us look at her hands.  The synecdoche here tells us that her hands represent her in the mystery of her prayerful intercession for all her children.  In much of Western art, Mary’s hands are folded in prayer (though we can’t exactly call the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe “western,” since it came straight from Heaven!).

In Eastern iconography, uplifted hands express the position of the Mother’s prayer.  One of the most common of these is called “Our Lady of the Sign,” which refers to the prophecy of Isaiah: “The Lord will give you a sign: a virgin shall conceive and bear a son…”  In this icon she represents the whole church at prayer both bearing Christ within her and manifesting Him to the world.  The intercession of Our Lady is often poetically expressed in the Byzantine Offices, as in this typical text: “Purify me, O holy Virgin, wash me with the hyssop of your intercession and make me worthy of the bridal chamber of your Son…”

In Western sacred art Our Lady’s hands have another meaning: the extension of her compassion and the communication of God’s grace to her children.  So her hands are at some times folded or uplifted in prayer, and at others are stretched out lovingly toward us.  These two dimensions—her prayer going to God, and God’s grace coming to us through her—reflect the understanding that she is so intimately united to the Holy Spirit because of their ineffable cooperation in bringing forth the Incarnate Son, that she shares in the Holy Spirit’s mission of being an advocate and intercessor, as well as a communicator of grace.  The angle at which this photo is taken suggests that Our Lady offers to take us with her while she herself always remains in contemplation of God.  We take her hand and allow her to lead us to where she is, because we want to see what she sees, we want to learn to love the Lord as she does.

A precious dimension of the mystery of Mary in the West is her heart, often called the Immaculate Heart of Mary because of her perfect purity and holiness, and because she referred to herself that way in some of her (Church approved) apparitions, most notably those that occurred in Fatima in 1917.  Perhaps the Heart of the Mother says the most that one can say about who she is in all of her love for us, in all that it means concerning a mother’s vigilant care and protection of her children.  Her only desire for us is the salvation of our souls and thus our eternal happiness, and at Fatima she explicitly offered her heart to us as our secure refuge as we make our way to God in the midst of the sorrows and sufferings and evils of this life.

In the East there never developed devotion to the Heart of the Mother of God, perhaps due to lack of clarity on the use of synecdoche (since I’ve heard some criticisms of devotions to “parts” of her or of Our Lord, but that misses the point).  But liturgically the mystery of her heart appears in the texts associated with Jesus’ Passion, with reference to Simeon’s prophecy in the temple.  “Although as Virgin I once escaped the pains of childbirth, I am now experiencing those sufferings in my broken heart.  The prophecy of Simeon has now been fulfilled, for a sword is piercing my heart.  But arise now, O my Son, and save those who sing your praise!”

Finally (and you might not expect this), let us also look at the feet of Our Lady!  Why would we do that?  Well, in a tradition that actually begins in the Book of Genesis, but was made manifest in a vision to St Catherine Laboure in 1830, Mary is the one who crushes the satanic serpent beneath her feet.  So her feet represent her in the dimension of her power over evil and victory in spiritual warfare.  She is the Woman whom God made the enemy of the devil, and she has been given the power to neutralize his efforts to seduce the children of Eve.  This has been a part of the Latin tradition for a long time (exorcists will testify from their experience that the devil is terrified of Our Lady), and I think that we ought to invoke her aid and intercession in all of our spiritual warfare. Each of us, after all, has to crush that malignant snake in the context of our own pursuit of holiness and renunciation of evil.  One thing I noticed from statues of Our Lady crushing the serpent.  She’s not even paying attention to it.  She’s either looking serenely at God or at us.  So filled is she with the power of God that it’s not even an exertion or a distraction for her to bind the devil.  Pope Pius IX wrote: “The most holy Virgin, united with [Christ] by a most intimate and indissoluble bond, was, with Him and through Him, eternally at enmity with the evil serpent, and most completely triumphed over him, and thus crushed his head with her immaculate foot.”

There’s a lot more that can be said about that text from Genesis three, the way the language and grammar of it supports this reading of it, and I hope to go into that in more detail in the future.  You’ll see it, God willing, in my forthcoming book on Our Lady (I have no idea when it’s coming forth, since I’ve just barely begun to write it, so pray that I find the time!  The inspiration is already coming…).

I almost forgot; I had one more image prepared, and this says a lot about who Our Lady is.  It depicts her holding Jesus and pointing to Him.  It is entitled, “She who shows the way.”  That says it all.  Yet something else still has to be said about how we ought to be like our Mother.  All Christians are called to have their faces turned to the Lord and reflecting his light, their hands lifted in prayer and extended in compassion to others, their hearts loving God and all people, and their feet exercising “the authority to tread upon serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy” (Lk. 10:19).  Thus we fulfill our roles in the Body of Christ. Then not only our words but, most importantly, our very lives will “show the way” as Our Lady did and will continue to do until the Lord returns.

This has been just a brief and inadequate overview of some of the facets of that heavenly Jewel who is our own Blessed Mother.   She is the icon, the glorified and personal embodiment of the redeemed Church, and therefore in speaking of her, we can speak by synecdoche of the Bride of Christ as a whole. “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel” (Rev. 21:2, 11).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that she has made her presence felt in my life in profound and unexpected ways in the past six weeks or so, and I’m still in awestruck wonder as I go more deeply into the joyful mystery of it all.  I’ll be eternally grateful for what the Almighty has done for me through her, this precious gift of God’s love, the Mother of Jesus.  I just read this morning, and I want also to say it in regard to this overflowing grace: “Sing, O heavens, for the Lord has done it!” (Is. 44:23).  Gotta hand it to Him; He sure knows what to do in order to reach the hearts of his poor, struggling servants…

Holiness and Honor

Now that the Holy Spirit has come at Pentecost and you are filled anew with his grace, what are you going to do about it?  You’re going to live in holiness and honor, that’s what you’re going to do!

That expression comes from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians (4:3-5).  The usual translation of the passage is: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God.”  The phrase “control his own body” is somewhat obscure, and is sometimes (though not accurately, I think) translated “acquire a wife for himself.”  Literally it reads, “possess his own vessel,” so I think that “control his own body” is the better way to make sense of it.

This self-control is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and I think we ought to view it not only as control of the body, but also of the mind and heart as well.  We are perhaps already aware that God calls us to holiness through union with Him and obedience to his will. Holiness is a term and concept we see often enough in Scripture and spiritual writings.  But what about honor?  This concept is quite out of fashion these days, when political correctness, egalitarianism, and utilitarianism pretty much rule personal and societal relationships.  It’s not often you hear people say they do something simply because it is the honorable thing to do. We do things because they are practical, expedient, profitable, efficient, ego-building, or control-securing—but not usually because they are honorable.

Yet this is our calling, for the Apostle says it is the will of God for us, for our sanctification.  “Holiness and honor” could perhaps be a kind of motto for us, and I think it can help us in our striving for virtue and overcoming temptation.  There can be various excuses we might employ to justify engaging in our pet vices from time to time, but they tend to look pretty thin when we ask ourselves if giving in to this or that temptation is really the honorable thing to do.  St Paul explicitly mentions avoiding “the passion of lust” here, and that is an area in which we can be very creative in justifying various levels of self-indulgence.  But we can stop ourselves short when reflecting for a moment (if we’ll allow ourselves that moment of reflection) on whether or not this spiritual compromise is compatible with our commitment to holiness and honor.

I wonder if we need something like a return of the Age of Chivalry in some form, so as to recover the sense of nobility and honor that ought to govern the lives of the children of God.  A knight would honor and respect his lady and do anything for her, and would defend her honor at all costs.  She was for him the embodiment of what was true and beautiful and good, and he would treat her accordingly. There were times when people knew how to live honorably.  Nowadays, we don’t see this much.  Men don’t often honor women like that anymore, either because they don’t control their own “passion of lust” and hence treat women like objects of pleasure to be used, or else because many of today’s women simply don’t want to be treated honorably.  Womanhood is no longer an ideal of perfection, beauty, and exalted humanity because many women just want to be “one of the guys,” competitors, equal in the sense of being the same, not in the sense of being complementary.  Open a door for a woman and you might just get a dirty look and be scorned for being sexist or ingratiating.  But you men, open doors for them anyway, stand up when they enter the room, and treat them with utmost respect, and at least you will be behaving honorably.

We often call Jesus “Our Lord” and Mary “Our Lady,” terms that hearken back to nobler times, but that show we hold them in honor and wish to comport ourselves honorably in their service.  I wonder if the quest for holy and honorable behavior in our Christian lives might be made less burdensome if we didn’t view the various commandments and prohibitions of Scripture and Church practice as onerous tasks that have threats attached to them.  Perhaps if, with a more chivalrous attitude, we would be pleased that their wishes be our commands because we love and respect them so much, we could serve in holiness and honor.

Serving the Lord humbly and honorably is the way to holiness.  And the Lord will not be outdone, for his love for us also includes a respect for us as his images (even though we act in ways that don’t deserve it).  In a striking passage from the Prophet Isaiah, the great God of Heaven says: “You are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you” (43:4).  And let us hear it from Jesus’ own mouth: “If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (Jn. 12:26).

So we begin, with the grace of the Holy Spirit, to control our own bodies and minds in holiness and honor, and this will train us to live our entire lives honorably, in our relations with God and our fellow human beings.  We have to remind ourselves that we are created in God’s image, made his sons and daughters in his only-begotten Son, and that hence there are certain standards by which we are expected to live.  It’s worth the struggle for self-control and the humility that defers to others: the reward is being honored by God Himself in the endless joy of Paradise.

Come to Jesus, Receive the Spirit

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-11) begins with: “When the day of Pentecost had come.” How could they have been celebrating the feast of the Holy Spirit before the Holy Spirit had come?  Actually, Pentecost meant something else to them: the commemoration of the giving of the Law on Mt Sinai.  But after this uniquely extraordinary day, Pentecost would forever mean for Christians the giving, not of the law, but of the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Pentecost simply means “fiftieth,” and today is the fiftieth day after Easter, the last great day of these holy days of grace. In the Byzantine tradition there is always a post-feast after such great days, but today is the final climax point of the entire Lenten-Paschal season, which takes up about a third of the liturgical year.

Therefore the Gospel chosen for this feast (Jn. 7:37-52 & 8:12) begins: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed…”  What He proclaimed was the coming gift of the Holy Spirit, as the evangelist explains.

Jesus said that if anyone thirsts they should come to Him and drink, because out of the Lord’s Heart flow living waters.  This is similar to what He told the Samaritan woman.  What are these living waters?  St John’s commentary makes it explicit: “This He said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive.”

So if we are thirsty for truth and love, for wisdom and peace, for joy and hope and everlasting life, we should come and drink the living water of the grace of the Holy Spirit from the Heart of Jesus.  Can we really “drink” the Holy Spirit?  St Paul says we can.  In First Corinthians he writes: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body… and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

Perhaps drinking is simply a vivid metaphor for receiving. But let’s look a little more closely.  Jesus says to come to Him and drink because out of his Heart flows the living water of the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus died, his Heart was pierced, and the apostolic eyewitness to this says that immediately blood and water flowed out. During the rite of preparation for the Divine Liturgy, as the “Lamb” is pierced, and as wine and a little water are poured into the chalice, the priest recalls that moment, saying: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came forth blood and water. He who saw it has born witness, and his testimony, we know, is true.”  This wine mixed with water will be taken up into the mystery of Christ’s own sacrifice during the Liturgy, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit will be transformed into the very Blood of Christ, which we drink in Holy Communion.  And the Liturgy explicitly says that one of the chief fruits of the reception of the Holy Eucharist is “communion in the Holy Spirit.”

So it is true.  We drink the grace of the Holy Spirit from the Heart of Christ, pierced out of love for us, every time we “approach with fear of God and with faith” the Holy Mysteries at the Divine Liturgy.

Let us now look at an important point in the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first Pentecost.  St Luke tells us that the people were amazed, because once the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, each heard the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ in his own language. This was an actual historical event and phenomenon, and it also carried the symbolic meaning that the Gospel is the revelation of God for all nations and for all times.  It is the universal truth, meant for everyone and never to be superseded.

But there is more, and this is something I thought of for the first time as I was reflecting on this passage to prepare for this Feast.  What does it mean that God speaks to us in our own language?  Does it merely mean that He speaks to us in English, to Germans in German, and to Arabs in Arabic? I think it means more.  I think it means that God knows us so well, our personal history, our temperament, our capacities and sensitivities, that He deals with us uniquely, in ways that He knows will reach us, that will resonate in our hearts, ways that may be as varied and numerous as there are individuals in this world—yet always expressing his unchanging truth, for He cannot adapt Himself to error or falsehood.

For example, there may be certain icons or other sacred images that a certain person finds attractive and inspiring. God will speak through them and communicate his grace through them just for that person.  Another person might not feel the same or hear the word of God through them. Or perhaps someone feels drawn to the person of the Mother of God because of her holiness and beauty and power of intercession.  God will then speak and work through Our Lady for that person, and He will entrust her with the task of personally drawing that person to God.  If someone’s heart resonates to Mary’s presence, then the Lord speaks to him in his own language, as it were, because that’s how he will understand, receive, and cooperate with the word and grace of God.

If a person finds peace and blessing in the beauty of creation or of the Liturgy or of the Bible, God will speak to that person through that beauty, because that is the “language” that person understands.  Through it all, if the person is open to truth and seeks to know and love the true God, the Lord will communicate his revelation and his love, as He sends his Spirit again and again into the hearts of those He calls into his Kingdom and his glory.  So the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost results in people hearing the word of God in their own language, and thus the Gospel of Jesus resonates in their souls unto salvation.

Having received the word of God in one or more of these various ways, what is the next step?  At the conclusion of today’s Gospel, Jesus declares that He is the Light of the world.  Two weeks ago I said that Jesus proclaimed not only that He was the Light of the world, but his disciples are also meant to be the light of the world.  Among the several times Jesus referred to Himself thus, one of them makes this point clear.  He said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn. 9:5).  As long as He is in the world.  For the past ten days or so, we have been reflecting on the fact that He is no longer in the world, that He has ascended to the glory of his Father in Heaven.  Now it is our turn. Jesus sent his Holy Spirit from Heaven so that we could be the light of the world.

That was his plan from the beginning. He knew He would not remain in the flesh in this world for very long, yet the Church He established was to remain for thousands of years.  So by sending his Spirit on the first Pentecost, and countless times to countless souls ever since, Jesus intends to be the light of the world through us, his disciples.  He told us to let this light shine so that others could see and give glory to our heavenly Father (see Mt 5:14-16).

Yet the fact that the Lord wants us to be lights in the world, wants to shine through us to bring others to salvation, doesn’t guarantee that it will happen, because our faith and personal cooperation are necessary.  One of the passages we read from Acts shortly after Easter struck me and stuck with me.  After St Peter recounted all that Jesus had done through his life, death, and resurrection, he said: “We are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:32).  God gives the Holy Spirit only to those who obey, to those whom He knows will be docile, cooperative, and faithful.  Therefore obedience is one of the chief elements of the very capacity to receive the Holy Spirit.  Put in negative terms, the disobedient cannot receive the Holy Spirit.

So obedience is necessary to receive the Spirit in the first place, but the proof that we actually have received the Holy Spirit will be the manifestation of the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which has nine flavors, so to speak.  Even though you know them, I will repeat them as a reminder: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Reflect carefully and honestly on this.  If you bear this fruit, that is, if you manifest love, joy, patience, and all the rest, you have the Holy Spirit. If you do not manifest these, you do not have the Holy Spirit.

But take courage; even if you have not yet manifested this spiritual fruit, today is your lucky day!  For the Holy Spirit is poured out in abundance, looking for hearts to fill, looking for lives to transform, looking to turn frowns into smiles!  So pledge your obedience to God and to his will as it comes to you in your state of life.  Come to Jesus and drink the living water of grace from his pierced Heart.  He doesn’t hold it against us that we are the ones who put Him to death and rammed a spear into his heart.  Jesus bore it all out of love for us and would do it again if it were necessary.  He is glad now that his Heart is pierced because grace now flows out in torrents upon all those whom He wishes to save and to bring into the joy of his heavenly Paradise.

Finally, let us come to Him, drink from Him, hear Him speak to us in our own language, be obedient and fruitful in his service—and let us do all this with enthusiasm.  Why do I use the word enthusiasm?  Because I recently found out what it means!  “Enthusiasm” comes from en Theos, in God, God in us and we in God.  If we are enthusiastic about our spiritual life, then we are truly in the Holy Spirit, because we are in God!

So let us enthusiastically seek the grace of the Holy Spirit from the Heart of Christ, through the sacraments, through prayer, through the Scriptures, through our relationship with the Mother of God, our guardian angels and favorite saints, for the Spirit will speak to us in our own language.  The Holy Spirit will transform us if we let Him, if we are willing to let go of our old tired ways that have repeatedly proven to be fruitless, but which we cling to because we are familiar with them and afraid to step out in faith into a higher level of obedience, sacrifice, love, and holiness.

The Spirit is given to make us saints, to break us out of mediocrity so that we can become the light of the world.  Let us welcome God’s Spirit with joy and faith, with love and confidence that He will make all things new and bring us—and many other souls because of our faithfulness—to that everlasting Kingdom of Light, where everyone is enthusiastic because everyone is in God!

Joy and Peace in Believing

We’re now at the threshold of Pentecost, and St Paul sends us a blessing: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13).  Here he speaks of the “God of hope” filling us with joy and peace, and in the next chapter he speaks of the “God of peace” crushing satan under our feet.  So there seems to be a relationship between joy and peace and victory over the devil, and in this we have hope.

Since our joy and peace are to be “in believing,” it is clear that faith is the foundation for these.  This is a kind of motto or concise description of what it means to be a Christian: because we believe in Christ, we have joy and peace, and by the power of the Holy Spirit we “abound in hope.”  If we believe in Christ but do not have joy or peace or hope, then we might have to examine the depth and genuineness of our faith.  For faith in Christ leads to repentance and forgiveness.  Once forgiven, we have hope for eternal salvation, and so we ought to have joy and peace.  There are many things in this life that try to rob us of joy and peace, but if our faith is strong, these things can only affect us on a mostly superficial level.  The joy and peace that come from believing in Christ should be deep enough to weather life’s storms.  Even if it is impossible to have continual emotional tranquility, our hope for eternal life is something in which we can rest, something that grounds or anchors us when there is turmoil all around.  Peace and joy are based on hope, not on the absence of external or even internal disturbances.

St James goes so far as to consider the trials themselves to be a cause of joy, because these things test our faith, and this testing produces steadfastness which leads to spiritual perfection (see James 1:2-4).  This is why St Paul says our joy and peace are “in believing,” and not merely in pleasant experiences or a soothing environment.  Faith is what maintains the joy and peace through all circumstances, whether pleasant or unpleasant.  Therefore St Paul says in another place to give thanks in all circumstances—not that all circumstances will provide obvious reasons for gratitude, but simply because our faith tells us that God works all things for the good for those who love Him.  And so we abound in hope.

What about crushing the devil under our feet?  I think it’s clear that if we can maintain the level of faith necessary to overcome adverse circumstances without losing our fundamental joy and peace that come from our hope in God and the fulfillment of his promises, then the devil has nothing in us to exploit and can do us no real harm.

St Francis declared that joy, coupled with prayer, is the most powerful weapon against the devil.  His biographer Thomas of Celano writes: “Saint Francis maintained: ‘My best defense against all the plots and tricks of the enemy is still the spirit of joy. The devil is never so happy as when he has succeeded in robbing one of God’s servants of the joy in his or her soul. The devil always has some dust on hold that he blows into someone’s conscience through a small basement window so as to make opaque what is pure. But in a heart that is filled with joy, he tries in vain to introduce his deadly poison. The demons can do nothing against a servant of Christ whom they find filled with holy gladness; whereas a dejected, morose and depressed soul easily lets itself be submerged in sorrow or captured by false pleasures.’

“That is why he himself always tried to keep his heart joyful, to preserve that oil of gladness with which his soul had been anointed (Ps 45:7). He took great care to avoid sorrow, the worst of illnesses, and when he felt that it was beginning to infiltrate his soul, he immediately had recourse to prayer. He said: ‘At the first sign of trouble, the servant of God must get up, begin to pray, and remain before the Father until the latter has caused him or her to retrieve the joy of the person who is saved.’”

So, as we prepare our hearts to receive a fresh influx of the grace of the Holy Spirit, let us renew our joy and peace in believing, recalling all that the Scriptures tell us that faith provides for us.  Our joy and peace are not primarily in joyful and peaceful experiences, but in the God in whom we believe and trust to grant us the strength to endure the vicissitudes of this life with equanimity. More importantly, and in addition to the strength to endure, He gives us hope for an eternity of peace and joy that cannot be taken away from us.  In this life our joy and peace have the power to crush the devil and all his wicked wiles; in the next life they have the power to make us forget there ever was such a thing as the devil.  So rejoice in believing, and receive the Holy Spirit!


“The weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2Cor. 10:4).  Sounds pretty good, but what the heck is the Apostle talking about?  In the next verse he says that what Christians destroy with divinely-powered spiritual weapons is “every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God.”

He doesn’t explain what these weapons are, though earlier in the letter he mentioned “weapons of righteousness” (6:7), and perhaps these refer to what he said immediately before that: “purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God.”  In any case, the weapons that destroy strongholds are primarily interior, for they “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (10:5).

Let’s try to sort all this out a bit.  First of all, we need some idea of what a “stronghold” is in the first place.  It is generally accepted that the strongholds mentioned here are demonic strongholds, since they are destroyed by the weapons of righteousness that bear divine power for that very purpose.  This subject is not dealt with in detail in Scripture, but from what I’ve read in other places, it seems that a demonic stronghold within us is a kind of “power base” out of which the devil operates.  This is something short of actual possession, and in fact is rather common among those who aren’t too vigilant about their spiritual lives.

We all have certain weaknesses or vulnerabilities due to original sin and the personal sins we have committed over the years.  The devil is a cunning observer and tactician, so it doesn’t take him too long to discover what our weaknesses are and to begin to exploit them.  If we fall fairly consistently into one or another particular sin or type of sin, a habit is usually created, and we end up in bondage to evil in that area.  A demonic stronghold is this habitually exploited vulnerability out of which the devil operates and gradually gains control of our thoughts and emotions, with the intention of taking over our wills as well.

The first step in destroying such strongholds is realizing that they are there in the first place.  It shouldn’t take much more than a careful examination of conscience to discover the areas in which we habitually sin or are particularly vulnerable.  St Paul says that these strongholds can be generally classified as “proud obstacles to the knowledge of God.”  By “proud” we can perhaps read “stubborn,” because that’s what habits are.  But all of the devil’s wiles proceed from his monstrous pride and arrogance, so it is the devil’s pride that throws up obstacles before us, keeping us from the knowledge of God.  According to the Hebrew understanding of “knowledge,” we’re talking here of a personal and even intimate relationship with God, which is precisely what the devil wants to prevent from happening in us.

Let’s look at just a few of the “weapons of righteousness” that have divine power to destroy strongholds.  Purity: this is a big one.  Sins of impurity, like lust, fornication, adultery, masturbation, homosexual activity and other sexual perversions, viewing pornography, and deliberate sexual fantasizing are clearly stubborn obstacles to the knowledge of God.  They are quickly habit-forming and are numbered among the devil’s most secure strongholds.  Yet purity, says the Apostle, is a weapon of righteousness that has divine power to destroy this stronghold.  We have to will it, though, in a consistent manner, with prayer, vigilance, and the strength and grace of the sacraments, especially Confession and Holy Communion.  I think it would be a good idea to receive the Holy Eucharist at times with the explicit intention that its grace be applied to the destruction of whatever strongholds we have identified within ourselves.  We might wish to invoke the presence and protection of the Mother of God for this particular stronghold as well, not only because she is the “all-pure,” but also because she is undefeated in all contests with the devil, and he has not for a moment ever had a stronghold in her.

Genuine love is another of the “weapons” listed above.  It is easy for the devil to create a stronghold in us by fomenting anger, hatred, grudges, animosity, resentments, and even incessant annoyances within us.  All of these things are proud obstacles to communion with God and to obedience to his commandment to love one another.  So we destroy strongholds of hate and anger and unforgiveness with the righteous weapon of love.  Again, this is a very practical thing that has to be applied in concrete circumstances and in particular relationships.  But it has divine power to break the demonic influence.

Finally (for the purposes of this post), truthful speech is yet another weapon of righteousness.  You might be surprised (or maybe not) how often lying comes up in the confessional.  It is used as a kind of technique for self-protection, avoiding blame or embarrassment, for self-aggrandizement or even just the mere convenience of not having to own up to the truth when it might be a little unpleasant.  All manner of lies, deceptions, calculations based on self-interest, slander, gossip, etc, are areas in which demonic strongholds can be established.  Such strongholds have to be destroyed by truthful speech—consistently, fearlessly, without counting the cost to oneself but also making sure it is charitable to one’s neighbor.  One can still commit sin by saying something bad about another, even if it is true, if one has no right or authority or compelling reason to do so.

Rather unexpectedly (to me, anyway), Paul includes in the middle of the list the Holy Spirit.  That’s like saying, “Here are our weapons: purity, truth, God…”  But perhaps we should see the Holy Spirit in this context as the personal Source and Sum of all divine power needed to destroy strongholds.  Without his grace we can do nothing, try as we might.   If our warfare is not worldly, then our weapons cannot be worldly either.  We need “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Cor. 1:24).  For we have to take every thought captive and bring it to obedience to Christ.  Almost all sin begins in thought, in one way or another: ideas, desires, temptations, fantasies, ambitions, plans, etc.

Since we are now in the time of preparation for the renewed Gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, let us implore Him to destroy all inner strongholds that may be obstacles to our knowledge and love of God.  Let us beseech Christ, the Stronger Man, to bind the demonic strong man and to cast him out, barring access to his former power base within us.  If we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we will have the necessary divinely-powered weaponry to smash the strongholds of the devil and to guard our souls from further invasion and takeover.  Taking every thought captive for Christ is a work that requires constant vigilance, but by the grace of God we can and will do this—for He is our Rock and our Stronghold, and in Him is our salvation.

Direction for Our Times

For quite a few years I had been interested in following various reported apparitions of the Mother of God, for if Heaven was indeed speaking to the world, I didn’t want to miss out on it.  I think it did help my spirituality at the time, and also supported my devotion to Our Lady.  Things sort of ground to a halt, however, around the turn of the millennium, when many alleged prophecies had failed to materialize. I didn’t want to waste my time meditating on words from Heaven if they were not really words from Heaven.  So I concluded that the Gospel was enough, and the Tradition of the Church was sufficient to help me put the Gospel into practice.

My position is still basically the same, though I do accept the various apparitions over the past few centuries that the Church, after much prayer and thorough scrutiny, has declared worthy of belief (but the Church never requires belief in anything beyond the public divine revelation contained in Scripture and Tradition). I am quite hesitant to follow or recommend any apparition or associated devotion not yet approved by the Church.  About thirteen years ago, I kind of went out on a limb in support of one of these, and recently the visionary was excommunicated by the Church, so, as the saying goes, I’m “once bitten, twice shy.”  [Update, 8-9-11: Maybe I should have been more shy still.  I’m not sure yet; I know some controversy has recently arisen, which has caused some faithful ministers of the Church who had supported Anne and her ministry to withdraw their support and encourage others to do the same.  At this point I do not know what has happened.  As I say below, I await the judgment of the Church.  Anne has had the support of her bishop, which was a good sign.  But perhaps things have changed.  The Church must always have the last word, and we must be willing to walk away from anything that merits her disapproval.  UPDATED UPDATE, 10-16-11: I have recently received some “inside” information which makes me think that the issues involved are merely personal and have nothing to do with the authenticity of the messages or the integrity of the ministry.  Anne still has her bishop’s support.  The final judgment of the Church remains the ultimate criterion.]

But in the past year or two I’ve become acquainted with a lay spiritual movement known as Direction for our Times (see their website here).  It began with revelations made to a lay woman (wife and mother of six, and a secular Franciscan) known as “Anne,” which is a pseudonym, since she originally intended to remain hidden and unknown.  In recent times, however, this movement has grown quite a bit and she is now often asked to speak at conferences, etc, so her face is now known, though “Anne” remains her public name.  The whole point of it is the sanctification of the laity through a disciplined life of prayer, good works, and fidelity to the Church, not only for personal sanctification, but also in anticipation of a coming time of renewal for the Church, which is meant to bring many straying souls back to God.

Anne has published several books of her own, in addition to publishing the messages she has received from God and from Our Lady.  I have read some, though not all, of them, and I have been favorably impressed.  She is quite down to earth, practical in her spirituality despite her mystical experiences, and she writes at a level easily accessible to the average layperson.  She is orthodox in her Catholicism, stresses the mercy of God but does not ignore his judgment, and submits everything to her bishop, who has approved the publication of her writings and the messages.

All this does not in itself prove that God and Our Lady are in fact speaking to her, but they are all good signs, and I haven’t yet found anything that would dissuade me from paying attention and benefiting from what she has published.  One of her volumes contains messages from the Mother of God to priests, which I have found (naturally) to be quite helpful and inspiring.  I’ve had the further blessing of having some personal contact with Anne, and again I am favorably impressed with her spirituality, wisdom, and ability to endure joyfully the many sufferings the Lord has required of her.

While I await a definitive judgment of the Church on the authenticity of the messages from Heaven, I would still suggest you check it out for yourself.  There are a whole series of video interviews with Dr. Mark Miravalle on her site, and perhaps you can get a better idea by actually seeing her and listening to her speak.  The Direction for our Times movement seems quite solid to me, and as far as I can tell it is bearing much good fruit.  With the world in such sorry spiritual shape these days, I’m not at all surprised that the Lord is busy with “grassroots” movements mobilizing the faithful to be more fervent in prayer, evangelization, and daily faithfulness to the Gospel.  Such movements are all about winning souls for the Kingdom of God, and that’s what He’s all about, while this world still lasts.

I will conclude here with a message from Our Lady: “Look closely into your vocation and you will see the invitation that God extended to you to serve Him with the gift of your life.  Now look closely at your life.  Are you doing God’s will?  Or are you doing your own will?… Your salvation and crown in heaven depend upon the answer.  Much is expected of you, yes, but not unfairly. You are given every grace and consideration to complete the mission we have entrusted to you… I will help you.  In fact, we will do this together, you and I.  Spend time with me, your heavenly mother, I and will help you understand if there is any area in your life that is not in keeping with the mission God has designed especially for you since the beginning of time… we will seek out the truth together, and together we will find the truth and set matters right with you… Be joyful, dear soul of my heart, that I am working so lovingly with you at this time… Your mother is with you and will come to you as soon as you ask… Jesus is pleased with your effort to work with your mother in this holy project… He longs to be united completely with you, so that He can save the souls of His children… Do not be afraid.  We will proceed together in this endeavor and soon you will marvel at the graces bestowed upon you… Your mother blesses you.  Be at peace.  I am with you.”

I find this both serious and joyful, and to me it rings true, as do the others I’ve read.  And I can say that everything she mentions here is already happening in my own life.  Perhaps I’ll say more about this in the future, but for the moment I’ll just say that the “encounter” I had with her last month (which I wrote about here) has changed practically everything for me.  So when she speaks, I listen.

Discern for yourself.  Perhaps you are being called to go deeper into your relationship with Jesus with the help of his Mother.  You can’t go wrong, and abundant grace awaits you.

As the Father Sent Me…

The feast of the Ascension of our Lord is a sort of recapitulation of the whole paschal cycle.  It adds a sort of “closure” to it, while at the same time directing our attention toward Pentecost, for as He was leaving, Jesus told his disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

There’s a verse in the Gospel of St John that concisely summarizes this whole mystery: “I came from the Father and have come into the world; now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (16:28).  We can begin by saying that the Son of God “came from the Father” from all eternity, for He is the only- and eternally-begotten Son and Word of God.  But this is probably not what Jesus was referring to in this passage.  He was talking about the Incarnation, coming from the Father into this world as man, sent on a mission both to reveal the Father to us and to offer Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus was sent into the world by the Father, and He repeatedly said that He was trying to get his disciples and all the people to believe that the Father sent Him.

Having accomplished the work the Father gave Him to do, Jesus was ready to leave the world and return to the Father.  His ascension to Heaven is the final stage of his glorification, which began with his Passion.  The whole of his mission is summarized in the Gospel (Lk. 24:36-53): He opens the minds of the apostles to understand all the Scriptures that referred to Him, and then reminds them of the necessity of his Passion and the prediction of his Resurrection, which He was at that moment manifesting to them.  Once they got all this, He could return to his Father, and the disciples would receive the Holy Spirit to enable them to continue his mission on earth.

The feast of the ascension is often, and rightly, considered to be a special feast for Jesus’ own sake, our glorying in his glory, and our happiness over his happiness at having accomplished the Father’s will at such great cost, and now finally receiving his well-deserved exaltation at the right hand of the Father as the God-Man.  It’s a feast purely and simply dedicated to his glory.

Yet the readings for the Liturgy focus more on the mission He entrusted to his disciples than on his own glory, and in this we see that the Lord is always more concerned about others than about Himself.  After He rose from the dead, He didn’t merely present Himself for his disciples’ contemplation; He immediately prepared them for work!  Practically the first words He uttered upon appearing to his disciples after his Resurrection were: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn. 20:21).

Thus He is easily distinguished from the false messiahs and spiritual charlatans He warned would come after Him.  I remember hearing of one of these some years ago.  He was just a middle-aged, pot-bellied, would-be guru, who decided after a particularly wild experience with hallucinogenic drugs that he was henceforth to be called the “God-man” and adored by anyone who was gullible enough to buy his imposture. So he gave himself a Hindu-sounding name and set up shop in some isolated corner of Northern California. A couple of his glassy-eyed disciples even came to visit us once, wearing weird triangular pendants and speaking of their guru in reverent tones.  This narcissistic buffoon would be carried in to a large room filled with his disciples, and he would sit on a chair while they all contemplated him as he sent out his hypnotic vibes to them all, drinking in their adulation and allowing them to worship him.

It is easy to see how this has nothing to do with the true God-Man, Jesus Christ.  Even though our Lord is worthy of eternal contemplation and adoration, and He will surely receive it—not because he feeds on it but simply because everyone will be spontaneously and lovingly drawn to this—yet his whole life on earth proves that He didn’t come here to be adored but rather to testify to his Father and lead souls to salvation, at the cost of his last ounce of strength and life and blood.

That’s why when He appeared to his apostles, He didn’t say, “OK, now worship Me,” but rather, “as the Father sent Me, so I send you.” His concern, even when He had finished the work of his death and resurrection, was not for his own glory but for the salvation of all those He wished to save through the ministry of his apostles.

Evidently they were still pretty slow on the uptake, since even after Jesus rose from the dead and spoke to them of the Kingdom of God for 40 days, they asked Him a sort of dumb question about the political ascendancy of their nation.  Jesus basically said that was none of their business and then told them what they should be concerned about: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.”  This is basically the Great Commission in somewhat different words than what St Matthew recounts: “make disciples of all nations.”  Then Jesus was lifted upon a cloud and taken into Heaven, and the disciples saw Him no more.

What Jesus was trying to say and show to them was that even though his mission was finished, it wasn’t finished.  That which only He could do—dying and rising to take away our sins and reopen Paradise—was finished, but the telling of the whole world about what He had done was just beginning.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Himself would be at work in and through his disciples to win souls for the Kingdom of Heaven. This is made explicit at the end of St Mark’s Gospel, which we read at Matins for this feast: “And [the apostles] went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” (16:20).

Now what about us?  Are we disciples of Jesus?  Is He working with us to confirm the message of his Gospel?  Are we his witnesses?   What is a witness?  A witness is someone who testifies to what he has seen and heard.  What have we seen and heard?  What have we experienced of the truth and love of Jesus Christ, and how are we bearing witness to that in our lives?

This is what the feast of the Ascension ought to get us to think about.  If we only think of Jesus rising on a cloud into Heaven, accompanied by angels’ hymns, we might soon forget about it or maybe think that that image doesn’t have a whole lot to do with our lives here and now. But if we think of this feast as a call to witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, then this can be a driving force in our lives every day.  It’s not enough to contemplate Christ rising up into Heaven.  The angels in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles confirm this when they said: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?”  The next thing they said was that Jesus was going to return from Heaven, so it was high time the disciples started doing what He commissioned them to do!

So they went home rejoicing and then did two things. First, they prayed; then they went to work, replacing the vacancy in the apostolic college left by the apostate Judas.  Then the Holy Spirit came upon them and they really went to work!  Thus ora et labora, prayer and work, has become an enduring motto for the Christian life.  Jesus said, “My Father is at work, and I am working, too,” and then sent his disciples out as the Father had sent Him.  And the apostles labored tirelessly and fearlessly to bring people to faith in Jesus.  They laid hands on successors, who laid hands on their successors, and so the Great Commission is still in effect to this day.

We rightly sing the praises of our Lord and give glory to Him who was glorified at the Father’s right when He ascended into Heaven.  But when our liturgical services are finished, we have only just begun.  Our guardian angels will nudge us, saying, “why do you stand looking into heaven?” There’s work to do, because Jesus said that his disciples are to be his witnesses until He returns in even greater glory than that in which he ascended to Heaven.

Once we have served the Lord by worship in his holy temple, we have to serve Him with our words and our works, for Jesus said that the one who loves Him is the one who keeps his commandments.  The mystery that we are celebrating today should increase our love and gratitude, and thus our willingness to serve.  Jesus has done for us what would have been impossible without Him: in his Person as the Incarnate Son of God, there is now a place for humanity at the heart of the All-holy Trinity. Divinity and humanity were inseparably united in Christ at the Incarnation, and henceforth humanity has a place at the right hand of the Father.  We can be forever united to God, because God has chosen to unite Himself to us.

This reality is placed before the eyes of our faith as we celebrate the ascension of the Lord into the eternal glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.  If He didn’t want us with Him where He is, He would have discarded his humanity and gone back Home without it.  But the fact the Son of God chooses to remain the incarnate Son for all eternity is a testimony to his everlasting love for us as well as his desire that we share fully his glory and his joy.

So as we celebrate today this feast of the Lord’s victory and his return to the Father, let us hear his call to be his witnesses—to be, in all we say and do, preachers of the Gospel of Jesus, following his example of living for the salvation of others, even at great cost to ourselves.  The Father honored his incarnate Son with a place at his right hand.  Jesus said that if we serve Him, the Father will honor us as well.  The greatest honor He can give us is expressed in Jesus own words: “Where I am”—that is, in the presence of the Father—“there shall my servant be also.”

Tag Cloud


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 111 other followers