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

Archive for October, 2010

Fighting Legion’s Legions

[A little update here on the reality of spiritual warfare, and that Halloween is a time of increased satanic activity.  We have some little wayside shrines along the mountain path on our property, and today we noticed that the crosses have been broken off and thrown on the ground, or driven upside-down into the ground.  There are definitely people around here who hate us because we serve and worship the true God and his Son Jesus Christ!]

It is perhaps appropriate that on this day on which occur satanic sacrifices and other occult events we have a Gospel recounting Jesus casting out a whole legion of demons (Lk. 8:26-39).  It is as if to say to the satanists: “Do what you will, but know that there is another Power far greater than yours that will utterly vanquish every last trace of evil in the world, and if you do not repent, you will also be vanquished along with your infernal masters.”

Jesus met only one man, but at the same time He met a multitude of demons.  When Jesus asked the man his name, he replied, “Legion,” for, as St Luke explains, many demons had entered him.  At that time, a Roman legion consisted of 6000 soldiers, so that is an awful lot of demons possessing a single soul!  Since spiritual beings don’t take up space, there’s no limit to the number of them that can inhabit a human being.  And they are very eager to do so, since it is evident from the Gospel that they receive something of a respite from the fires of Hell if they can enter a human soul (or even the body of an animal).  We know this because the demons begged Jesus not to send them back to the abyss, but rather into the swine.  Evidently, the conditions inside the body of a pig are preferable to Hell, which ought to tell us something about the accommodations there.

Speaking of the abyss, I remember a rather unpleasant encounter with this mystery when, quite a few years ago, I was attempting a deliverance prayer over a woman who had come a long way to receive this prayer.  The combination of my inexperience and her psychological attachment to the dark powers rendered my efforts largely fruitless. There is one mistake I made, which the demon seemed to capitalize upon.  When you send the demon out of someone, I later learned, you always have to send it to the foot of the Cross, so that it has to deal with Jesus and his will.  Only Jesus can send it directly back to the abyss.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but in some way I did try to send it to the abyss.  The demon wasn’t amused.  It replied through the woman, “I am the Abyss!”  Right then I knew I was up against something which I didn’t have the experience to deal with.  Then it said, “I will not retreat; you will retreat,” and in effect this was true, since the woman eventually left here with the evil spirits intact.  She had been somewhat fascinated by the mystery of the evil spirits, and so her will was not totally against them and with God.  This is always a major obstacle to deliverance.  Plus, the evil spirits had entered her when she had tried to contact her dead boyfriend, and she was still attached to him and was not willing to abandon her pursuit of him.  I rather clearly discerned after this whole experience that I was not called to be an exorcist!

When we read of Jesus’ various exorcisms in the Gospel, however, we should not think that this means we also have to perform actual exorcisms, because this is a specific and relatively rare vocation, which requires particular spiritual gifts as well as specialized training.  But that doesn’t leave us off the hook for the requirement of taking authority over evil spirits insofar as we encounter them in the various struggles and temptations of our spiritual life.  St Paul makes it clear that we are at war with them and that we need to protect ourselves with the armor of God and then arm ourselves with the “sword of the Spirit.”

In today’s reading from the Epistle to the Ephesians (2:4-10), St Paul speaks of our deliverance from spiritual death through the mercy of God, but we have to go back a few verses to get the context of this deliverance.  There we hear that, insofar as we commit sin we are “following the prince of the power of the air [i.e., the devil], the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.”  All we have to do to follow that evil demon is to live according to our “desires of body and mind,” which makes us “children of wrath” instead of children of the love of God.

We have to be aware that even though we are in constant warfare with the evil spirits, they cannot come into us if our wills are secured in God.  It is when we waver, or seek to do our own will instead of God’s (which makes us, in Paul’s terms, “sons of disobedience”) that the devils have a way of access to us.  There are a couple other ways they can get in, and we’ll see that in a minute.  But the primary line of defense, aside from the power of God’s grace, which is really the foundation of our strength, is our own free will. We can actually render God’s grace ineffective on our behalf if our will is not completely surrendered to God.

I read something to this effect, only a single sentence, but it spoke volumes.  It was in a letter written by Jacques Fesch, a convicted murderer in France who had a profound conversion in prison, so much so that the Archbishop of Paris eventually petitioned for his beatification.  In writing of his inner struggles with temptation, the converted prisoner said: “When my will no longer tended toward God, my imagination was violently assailed, and my fall was imminent.”  There is sometimes a fine line in our souls that our wills may cross in the heat of temptation.  If they lean toward the temptation, the battle is lost.  But if our wills are unwaveringly with God and against whatever the devil is trying to ensnare us with, we will be safe.  As soon as our wills are not fixed on God, however, the devil will see his opening, and thus we are violently assailed and our fall is imminent. So the first and perhaps most important lesson in our spiritual warfare is: Will what God wills, keep your will tending toward Him, fixed on Him; hate sin and all that is proposed as something good by the father of lies.

There are a couple of other things that create openings in our souls to the devil.  Pride is the main one, and the devil exploits this easily.  St Silouan of Athos once said: “The proud always suffer from devils.”  St Faustina writes that the Lord said this to her: “Know, my daughter, that I do not grant My graces to proud souls, and I even take away from them the graces I have granted” (Diary #1170).  It stands to reason that if graces are not granted to, and are even removed from, proud souls, such souls are easy meat for the devil.

The devil is always vanquished by humility.  Once one of the Desert Fathers forced the devil to speak, once he had overcome him, and the saint asked the devil how it was that he was beaten.  The devil growled: “Well, it wasn’t by your fasting, since I never eat, and it wasn’t by your vigils, since I never sleep—but your humility, there is nothing I can do against that!”

Another easy access for the devil, according to St Faustina, is laziness and idleness.  If we are not conscientious and diligent in our work, and not fervent in our prayer, the devil will find us easy prey.  St Faustina cornered the devil once and commanded him in the Name of God to tell her to which souls in religious life he has the easiest access, he said, “To lazy and idle souls.”

These are things that I have recently read or remembered, but in a sense these and all other possible openings to the work of the evil spirits are based on the first point: when we begin to do what pleases ourselves instead of what pleases God, we lose the armor of God, our spiritual swords fall from our weakened hands, and thus we have no more defense against the wiles and works of the demons.

So we have to turn to Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has power to cast out legions of demons with a single word, but we have to align our will firmly with his.  Otherwise, we will not be set free, like that poor woman who wouldn’t surrender completely to God even though she had wanted, at least to some extent, to be delivered.  With God it is all or nothing, just as in the final judgment the verdict will be either Heaven or Hell. There’s no sitting on the fence, no part-time faithfulness to God.  Whoever is not with Him is against Him.  The devil knows, perhaps better than we do, what the stakes are in this perilous adventure called human life.  So he is relentless in his pursuit of our souls, for he knows that God is merciful and he hates that, so his main efforts are aimed at turning our wills away from God—not only so that we will fall into sin, but that we will eventually despair, having become disconnected to God’s grace by repeatedly withdrawing our will from Him through sin.

On the other hand, one way to keep our wills focused on God is through gratitude, as we also learn from the Gospel.  Jesus said to the newly-liberated man: “Declare how much God has done for you.”  When we reflect with gratitude upon all the graces and mercies God has granted us throughout our lives and even up to the present time, and when we also reflect upon all that He has promised to those who are faithful to Him through the struggles of life, it will be less likely that we will incline our wills toward anything that is not of God, and more likely that we will keep our hearts fixed on Him.

Jesus too knows better than we do the high stakes of this life, so He grants us everything we need to overcome the spiritual enemies and to remain in God’s grace.  But let us avoid pride and laziness at all costs, because then God’s grace will be rendered ineffective in us and will be taken away and given to someone else, whom God sees will be obedient and diligent in his service.

So even if the devil-worshippers unleash more evil spirits tonight through opening their wills to them, we shall be strong in the Holy Spirit and will not grant access to our souls to anything that is not of God.  On the contrary, through our prayer and sacrifice and fidelity to God, we will release a greater Power into the world.  The devil may be the “strong man,” as Jesus said, but the Lord is the “stronger man,” and in union with Jesus we will always have the victory, and we will rejoice forever with all the spiritual warriors at the Lord’s victory feast in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Ordinary Mysticism

[This was published in a slightly different form in one of our newsletters quite a few years ago.  But perhaps it still is worth reflecting upon today. It begins with the issue of feast days (“extraordinary times”) introduced into “ordinary time”]

Why must ordinary time be interrupted with extraordinary time?  Is it to relieve the tedium of the same round of services day after day?  I don’t think so, since a festal service can be even more tedious due to its extra length, making your tired body and word-weary mind wonder if this is not a penitential service after all!  It seems to me that we need to keep returning to the celebration of the mysteries of Christ and the Blessed Mother because we need to be reminded often that the meaning of life is discovered only in the quest for communion with the Mystery of God.

What is it that is most needed today in the Church, in her mentality and practice, and in Christianity as a whole?  Is it more focus on the external trappings of religion, more bureaucracy, more programs and projects, more uninspired worship?  No, we don’t need that.  Still less do we need insipid preaching, shady politics, corruption and hypocrisy, self-righteousness, narrow-mindedness, superficial spirituality, loveless truth and truthless love, irrelevant or misguided agendas, and emphasis on extraneous and petty concerns at the expense of the One Thing Necessary.  We already have plenty of all that.  Simply put, what the Church (and all humanity) needs most urgently and fundamentally is genuine mysticism.  That is the lifeblood of souls and of the Church, the hidden “river of life” essential to spiritual vitality and the fulfillment of God’s dream for the perfection of his Bride.

If we trade in the search for God for the search for self-satisfaction, divine truth for political correctness, contemplation for committees, inner stillness for restless busyness, and silent solitude for back-slapping fellowship, we are fleeing from the essence of the Christian mystery.  Not that there is no place for external activities and functions.  They are necessary in their own right.  But the Church is essentially the mystical Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ—not the Secretary of Christ or the Office For Trying to Solve More Problems Than We Can Handle and For Creating New Ones of Our Own.

Christ came to reveal the Father and to prepare us to receive the Spirit in order to live the “abundant life,” even the “eternal life,” starting now on earth.   He died and rose again to restore mankind and all creation to its original blessedness, to liberate us all from “the law of sin and death.”  So the Apostle Paul exhorts us, who through baptism have mystically died and risen with Christ, to set our hearts and minds on “things above,” for our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3: 1-3).  He was not writing only to monks or hermits but to a whole Christian community of people in all walks of life.

All too often Christianity is understood as a kind of moral code or social program. Rather, it is primarily the revelation of a creating, saving, transcendent, immanent God, and of a divine-human communion that is meant to begin on earth and last for all eternity.  One has only to consider the Johannine mysticism of mutual indwelling, the Pauline vision of the glorified Christ who fills the universe (and us) with Himself, the biblical language of Christ in us and us in Christ, as well as the metaphors of the Vine, the Body, and the Temple of the Spirit, to understand that Christianity sets us squarely within a vast, profound and inexhaustible mystery.

(Of course, a genuine spiritual life will naturally overflow and be manifested in the practice of virtue and charitable works.  Here, however, we are not discussing the outward expression but the inner essence.  For practical applications, read the rest of Colossians 3.)

So, all of us are called to a deep and living communion of life with God.  Without that, our other activities and pursuits have little meaning, and ultimately none at all.  The interior life, what we may call our mystical relationship with God, is an essential and irreplaceable dimension of our Christian and human existence.

When I speak of mysticism, however, I do not identify it entirely with the experiences of “visionaries,” of those who see heavenly visions or hear voices or receive divine messages for the world.  Those experiences—I speak here of authentic ones, such as those the Church has approved after painstaking investigation, not those created by psychological disorders, demonic interference, or uncontrolled pious imagination—are relatively rare and not given to all.  Visions and voices are not of the essence of spiritual life, but mystical union with God is.   Our life in God does not need to be dramatic to be real and transforming.

Mysticism is no more and no less than the experience of God, an undeniable communion or communication with God in the depths of the soul.  This experience may be granted us during prayer or sacramental communion or reading the word of God, or in the awareness of his presence in the beauty of creation.  Many are the ways in which we can experience God, but it is always God who takes the initiative.  All we can do is be well-disposed for that interior divine manifestation or loving advance.  We cannot manufacture mystical experiences.  That is why they cannot be identified with emotional or spiritual “highs” or with altered psychological states, even though such may sometimes accompany mystical experiences.

Fundamentally, the mystical life is a life lived with and in God, being led and “walking” by the Spirit.  God is both the goal of our pilgrimage and our companion on the way.  In God we live and move and breathe and have our being.  We were created for divine communion.  “Birds fly, fish swim, and man prays,” is a patristic dictum.  When prayer and the awareness of the presence of God characterize your whole life and define your reason of being, you have become a mystic.  Congratulations!

We must give some “quality time” to the exploration of the world of prayer and meditation, to the search for “Him whom our hearts love.”  Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the renewal of the Church and the transformation of the world.  If we think that we can make no difference in this grandiose endeavor, then we do not really believe that we are united to Christ, the Wisdom and Power of God. We have to give what is possible to give according to our state in life, whether we are monks or mommies, hermits or hard-working heads of households.  All alike are called to drink of the life-giving waters of spiritual union with God, and thus fully realize the divine dream for us that was first expressed at the moment of our creation.

I seem to have undertaken an immense and unwieldy topic here.  All I really wanted to say is that we need more than ever to “seek out and save what was lost,” i.e., the comprehensive vision of the mystery of Christ and the true essence of the Church. I wanted to say that we need to open ourselves to be permeated with the Divine Energies and led by the Spirit into the depths of this mystery, that our lives need to be hidden with Christ in God, through contemplative prayer and the experience of the God who transcends all and indwells all, who renews the face of the earth and transfigures our souls unto the likeness of Christ, who loves us with an everlasting love and who invites us to life and joy without end.  That’s all I wanted to say.

I hope and pray that you will have some extraordinary times this autumn.

Dynamics of Despair

The outer world is in a rather frightful state, with its wars, corruption, immorality, blasphemy, etc.  The inner world of our minds and hearts may also be in rather serious disorder, at least at times.  All of the inner and outer chaos is basically the result of sin, but we aren’t always aware, first of all, that there is a malevolent power trying to work out a plan for our ultimate ruin, and second, that we can do something about it.

If the devil had his way, he would lead us all along a progressive path that looks something like this: sin, despondency, despair, suicide.  His ultimate goal is to lead us to despair of salvation, and then to seal our doom by forever cutting ourselves off from the Source of Mercy.  This is a fairly long process in most cases, but the devil really doesn’t have anything else to do, so he can apply himself diligently over the long haul to gradually lure souls away from God and then, at the right moment, zero in for the kill.

The first element is sin, which, at least to some extent, is practically unavoidable for us, uh, sinners, but which sets us on the path to ultimate despair.  Sin destroys, or at the very least harms, our relationship with God, depending on the gravity or habitual quality of it.  It creates a dis-ease in our souls, a sense of guilt (if our conscience is still intact), which makes us want to hide from God as did our first parents in Eden when they lamentably introduced sin into the hitherto pristine creation.  This hiding from God is the first indication that we are on the way to despair, and so the devil will eagerly encourage us to keep our distance from the Lord, for how could we now—says the enemy of our salvation—enter into the presence of the Holy One?  Better to flee from his face.

Since, however, our hearts are made for God and they cannot rest until they rest in Him, our sin—if left unrepented due to our fearful withdrawal from God—will lead us to the next step, despondency.  The guilt we feel over sin is not the culprit, because that is a natural and correct inner response to wrongdoing.  If we are guilty, we should feel guilty!  But the sense of shame or guilt is supposed to lead us to humility and repentance, so that we can be restored to God’s favor and blessing, which is precisely what He wants to do.  There’s a bit of devilish pride that restrains us from humbling ourselves, and though it may not be a boastful arrogance, it is an inward-turning self-pity or perhaps even self-justification concerning our sin.  But there is no healing in this; the dis-ease only increases and becomes despondency, a kind of chronic inner darkness and pessimism that resists any encroachment of joy or peace.

An element of this despondency may be the record of our past failures to shake free from sin or from some particular habitual fault.  We may have perhaps, after a fall, promised God to avoid this sin henceforth.  But once such a promise is broken, it may be that we resign ourselves to a (mistaken) conclusion that such promises simply cannot be kept—and therefore no one should expect us to!—and then of course the falls increase and hope diminishes accordingly.  As hope recedes, despair approaches, and the devil gathers strength.

If we ever become convinced that we can’t change, can’t resist sin, can’t break out of the deadening cycle of sin and its increasingly harmful consequences, and therefore (and worst of all) can’t expect forgiveness, we are entering the pit of despair.  If we have come to a point at which we convince ourselves that our lives are ruined and that therefore there is no hope for us or reason even to try to find mercy or deliverance, the devil will play his final card: suicide.  Put an end to it, and flee forever from the Uncompromising Holy Almighty One who disapproves of your failed life anyway.  Well, that’s literally going out of the frying pan and into the fire, for the devil will now taunt us for all eternity for stupidly throwing away our only hope, and now we have to serve him, which is a torment and humiliation far greater than anything we could experience in this life.

So what do we do?  Ideally, of course, we ought to live in a constant state of grace, of lively faith, hope, and love for God, doing his will at all times.  But since we are still likely to fall into sin, to some extent and at certain times, we have to make sure that it never gets past that first stage in devil’s design for our despair unto death eternal.  If you fall you have to get up right away and repent, and if you fall again you have to get up again, quickly, without reflection on your woeful weakness and the likelihood that you’ll fall yet again.  Run, don’t walk, to the Heart of Mercy and be reconciled with Him.  He’s not going to grind your face in it or humiliate you.  Rather, He will receive you with embraces like the father of the prodigal.  When you experience the inexhaustible outpouring of mercy and love from the Lord, the happy consequence is that your healing has already begun and you will become (gradually at least) less likely to commit the sins that have caused you shame and the desire to hide from Him or give up hope altogether.

The devil must not be allowed to push the program any further.  Once you allow yourself to get stuck in despondency, you’re already too far down that road.  But even at that point you can easily be rescued if you just call for help and mercy.  The Lord has cracked tougher nuts than you, but it’s still not a good idea to put Him to the test!  You have to will your deliverance, your repentance, your reconciliation.  This is important, because your emotions will fail you at this point, as will your natural physical and psychic energies.  You have to choose to turn to the Lord; your decision is what will connect you to his grace and mercy (on his part, his love is already there, waiting).

No one inevitably ends up in despair after having sinned, even repeatedly.  There is always hope, always mercy.  It is up to us to be vigilant and to have our hearts turned toward the Lord as consistently as possible, so we don’t have to end up seeking deliverance from the sticky tentacles of despondency.  Let us look for the signs early, so as not to give in to deceitful demonic reasoning about the sternness of God or the hopeless condition of our souls.   “For with the Lord there is mercy and the fullness of redemption” (Ps. 129/130).  So go ahead, ruin the devil’s day.  Accept the Lord’s mercy and get up to serve Him once again!

Salvifici Doloris

This is sort of a follow-up to my last post, and it is based on Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter, Salvifici Doloris, which literally means “salvific suffering,” but the document in English usually is rendered: “On the Christian meaning of human suffering.”  It is a kind of extended commentary on St Paul’s enigmatic saying: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ, for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24), though its scope is wider.

Recently I read an article by a Christian woman (non-Catholic) who has suffered for many years with several painful and debilitating conditions.  Her faith and courage and acceptance of God’s will were quite admirable, but I looked in vain for any evidence that she was aware that she could do good for other souls by offering her sufferings to God in union with the Passion of Jesus.  Even though this is a biblical idea (championed especially by St Paul), most Bible-only Christians don’t seem to get it.  Bishop Sheen used to lament, as he would drive by hospitals, over all the “wasted suffering” of those who didn’t realize that there was meaning and spiritual value in their sufferings, if they would but offer them to the Lord.

In the Old Testament, suffering was usually regarded as a divine punishment.  Thus it was mainly understood within the concept of justice.  All suffering is in some way related to sin, at least to the fact that sin has entered the world, and with sin entered suffering and death.  Therefore it was natural to look for guilt in the midst of suffering, as its likely cause.  The Book of Job questioned this, for it broached the subject of innocent suffering and so opened the door to a broader understanding of the mystery.  Suffering isn’t always a matter of justice, then, or punishment, and it can have a deeper meaning in the wisdom and providence of God.

Even suffering that is some sort of divine chastisement can still have some meaning beyond sheer retribution, for as the Pope writes, “it creates the possibility of rebuilding goodness in the subject who suffers.”  That is, if the divine punishment is received as a call to repentance, evil can be overcome and the relationship with God restored and given the potential for further growth.

The specifically Christian meaning of suffering, however, comes from the mystery of the sufferings of Christ.  He took the sin of the world upon Himself, thus enduring incomprehensibly vast and deep suffering, in order to redeem the world.  He alone truly suffered “punishment” for innocent suffering, but this was part of his loving sacrifice to the Father for the salvation of the world.

Where, then, do we come in?  Are we mere uninvolved bystanders in the great mystery of salvation?  What was St Paul talking about when he said that in his own flesh he made up what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings, for the sake of his body, the Church?  Being members of Christ’s Body is not a mere metaphor, so the very fact that Christ is the Head and we are the members of his Body means that we are included, incorporated in the mystery of who He is and what He has done.

Pope John Paul II writes: “In bringing about the Redemption through suffering, Christ has also raised human suffering to the level of the Redemption.  Thus each man, in his suffering, can also become a sharer in the redemptive suffering of Christ… Each one is also called to share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished.  He is called to share in that suffering through which all human suffering has also been redeemed.”

Through Christ’s sufferings on our behalf, then, suffering not only has acquired a profound meaning, but it also serves a purpose.  “Completing” Christ’s sufferings through our own, as St Paul wrote, does not mean that there was anything defective in Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation.  His sacrifice, in itself, was perfect and sufficient for the redemption of the world.  But our “completing what is lacking” means, at least in part, that we accept and take our place within the Lord’s Mystical Body as full members, united to Him in everything, including his redemptive suffering.  There something lacking in the fullness of his Body—not in the efficacy of his sacrifice—if we do not bring our own sufferings into union with his, for Christ wants all suffering to be taken up into his own, so that He can sanctify it and make it spiritually fruitful.  The “completing what is lacking”, in a mysterious way which St Paul does not fully explain, is for the sake of others, for the good of the other members of Christ’s Body, the Church.

Several times in the Scriptures we hear about sharing in Christ’s sufferings (e.g. Phil. 3:10; 1Peter 4:13).   St Paul even goes so far as to say that we carry in our own bodies the death of Jesus (2Cor. 4:10).  Again, these are not mere metaphors.  But in order to share in the sufferings of Christ, the writers of the New Testament don’t mean we have to be physically crucified or crowned with thorns.   Therefore it must mean that through our own sufferings, which have been ennobled by Christ’s, we share in the spiritual essence, the meaning and purpose of his sufferings, and hence to some extent in their redemptive value.  If this were not so, then our sufferings could do nothing for the other members of the Body, but St Paul says they can.

In a similar way, that is what happens at the Divine Liturgy or Mass.  We don’t have to go to the geographical Golgotha; no one has to be nailed to a cross; Christ offered his bloody sacrifice once for all.  But the essential reality, the grace and power of his sacrifice, are made present by the working of the Holy Spirit and the consecrating words of the Lord, which the priests always say because of his command: “Do this in memory of me.”  We receive the fruits of his Sacrifice in Holy Communion, for Jesus also told us to eat his Body and drink his Blood if we want to have life within us and be raised up on the Last Day (Jn. 6:51-58).

To share in Christ’s sufferings, especially for the sake of others, “means that the weaknesses of all human sufferings are capable of being infused with the same power of God manifested in Christ’s Cross.  In such a concept, to suffer means to become particularly susceptible, particularly open to the working of the salvific powers of God, offered to humanity in Christ. In him God has confirmed his desire to act especially through suffering, which is man’s weakness and emptying of self, and he wishes to make his power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self.”  It is not merely suffering as such that unites us to Christ’s redemptive Passion, but suffering that is offered in faith and love.  “The Redemption, accomplished through satisfactory love, remains always open to all love expressed in human suffering… Christ opened himself from the beginning to every human suffering, and constantly does so… this Redemption, even though it was completely achieved by Christ’s suffering, lives on and in its own special way develops in the history of man.  It lives and develops as the body of Christ, the Church, and in this dimension every human suffering, by reason of the loving union with Christ, ‘completes’ the suffering of Christ.”

The Pope goes on to describe other elements of the mystery, such as how suffering matures us and hence prepares us for entry into the Kingdom, how it draws us interiorly close to the Lord, and how it produces compassion in us for the suffering of others.

I’ve just given a brief overview here; you would do well to read the entire document, which you can find here. The mystery of suffering is always one that makes us ask, “why?”  But Christ has illuminated that question with his sacrificial obedience to the Father’s will, and He has thus invested our suffering with a significance and spiritual fruitfulness it could never have had if He hadn’t accepted suffering as the means to redeem us.  As members of his Body, we are invited by Him to share in the mystery of his own life and mission, and our sufferings can now be means of obtaining grace for other souls, other members of the Body, who may be in need.  In a spiritual sense we are to be “Good Samaritans” who can minister to others by the offering of our own sufferings.

This fruitfulness of sharing in the efficacy of Christ’s sufferings by uniting ours to his, for the good of others, was a great discovery for St Paul, and this realization filled him with joy.  That is why he said: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”  We may not quite be ready yet to rejoice in suffering, but at least we know now that there’s a good reason for it.

Pleasure, Pain, and the Will of God

As you may have noticed in some recent posts, I’ve lately been re-reading the Diary of St. Faustina. This is certainly a worthwhile endeavor, since Pope John Paul II, in 1994, described her as “a great mystic, one of the greatest in the history of the Church.”  One can hardly receive higher praise than that.  She says much about the will of God, and how she loves it.  She says things like the following: “My Jesus, You see that Your holy will is everything to me.  It makes no difference to me what You do with me… O will of God, you are the nourishment and delight of my soul… the knowledge of God’s will came to me; that is to say, I now see everything from a higher point of view and accept all events and things, pleasant and unpleasant, with love, as tokens of the heavenly Father’s special affection… When the soul does the will of the Most High God, even amidst constant pain and torments… it becomes mighty, and nothing will daunt it.  Though tortured, it repeats: ‘Your will be done,’ patiently awaiting the moment of its transfiguration… Whatever the hand of my Lord holds out to me I will accept with gladness, submission and love.”

Well, that’s why she’s a saint and I’m not.  But I couldn’t help reflecting on it all and trying to grasp the mystery of a soul that loves the Lord so much that even when his will requires suffering, hardship, and other difficult things (which it often does), there is no fear, resentment, perplexity, or discouragement.  A couple weeks ago, during the Divine Liturgy, these issues were on my mind, as I pondered the difficulty of being spontaneously and passionately in love with Someone who regularly requires us to suffer.  Then at Communion time, I heard (presumably from the Lord) these unexpected words: “You are still living according to the pleasure-pain principle.”  It wasn’t a thundering denunciation, just a matter-of-fact statement.  It was quite humbling, since that is a rather low level of life, yet I had to admit that it was true.

The pleasure-pain principle is actually a bit of Freudian psychology, but it’s more of a universal trait of (fallen) human nature that he just happened to name.  Instinctively we seek pleasure (or the gratification of our urges and desires) and we try to avoid pain, because it is, well, painful!  This instinct we share with animals, but the Lord would have us live on a somewhat higher level.

Pleasure is good; pain is bad.  If that is our general approach to life, we will end up being denied eternal pleasure and will have to undergo eternal pain.  But I think that many of us, without really reflecting on it, go about our lives in accord with the pleasure-pain principle, at least as far as our preferences go.  We prefer good experiences to bad ones; we prefer pleasant weather to unpleasant weather; we like food that tastes good and we don’t like food that tastes bad; we prefer agreeable people to disagreeable people; we like things that feel good and we don’t like things that hurt; we would rather be healthy than sick; we prefer good fortune to misfortune; we like it when things go our way, and we don’t like it when they don’t, etc, etc.  This approach is “natural,” but it won’t get you into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Gospel flies in the face of all that.  Love your enemies, deny yourself, take up your cross, go where you do not wish to go (see Jn. 21:18), take your share of suffering (2Tim. 2:3), offer your body as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1), bear with others, do not please yourself (Rom. 15:1-2), accept discipline (Heb. 12:3-11), bear abuse for Christ’s sake (Heb. 13:12-14), rejoice under trial and the testing of your faith (James 1:2-3), avoid the gratification of the “flesh” in all its forms (Gal. 5:16-21), kill the earthly desires within you (Col. 3:5-10), etc.  Well, no one can accuse the Scriptures of promoting the pleasure-pain principle!

It seems that many Christians don’t realize what it is that makes them distinctively Christian.  It is much more than simply believing in Christ.  It is consistently living a distinctive sort of life, one that does not adopt even the ordinary values (let alone the most sinful excesses) of the prevailing culture.  For this we need a thorough transfiguration of our world-view and our own personal expectations of life.  We have to have the attitude of him who said: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24), and “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation” (2Tim. 2:10), and “I will most gladly spend myself and be spent for your souls” (2Cor. 12:15).  This is an important reason why the pleasure-pain principle should not be the basis of our lives: we are here to serve others, and even sacrifice ourselves for them, for the sake of their salvation.  The pleasure-pain principle is radically self-centered; the Gospel of Jesus Christ is radically other-centered.

This is one reason I find the message of Our Lady of Fatima so important for the Church and the world of today.  It is all about prayer and sacrifice for the sake of the salvation of souls, and has nothing to do with self-gratification or self-promotion or even living a moderately comfortable life—which means it is all about the Gospel and the way of the Cross that Jesus and the apostles preached.  The following is an excerpt from the book Documents of Fatima and the Memoirs of Sister Lucia, by Fr. Antonio Maria Martins, SJ.

“Pope Pius XII was teaching in Mystici Corporis: ‘There is one stupendous mystery which we can never meditate on enough—the salvation of many depends on the voluntary prayers and penances of the members of the Mystical Body.’  The Lady of the Message [of Fatima] propounds the same truth, accentuating the sin of omission: ‘Pray, pray a lot, and make sacrifices for sinners; for there are many souls going to hell because there is no one to make sacrifices for them, nor to pray for them.’

“Pope John Paul II let this anguish escape from his lips in Fatima, when he was consecrating the world to the Immaculate Heart of Mary: ‘How much it pains us that so many participate so coldly in Christ’s work of Redemption!  That what is yet to be added to the sufferings of Christ is so insignificantly found in our bodies (Col. 1:24).’  A short time before he had proclaimed that our obligation to participate in the salvation of souls comes from our being integrated in Christ’s consecration to the Father. ‘I have consecrated Myself for them, so that they may also consecrate themselves in truth’ (Jn. 17:19).  ‘In virtue of that consecration’—the Pope continues—‘disciples of all ages are called to dedicate themselves to the salvation of the world, to add something to the sufferings of Christ to help His Body, which is the Church.’ (2Cor. 12:15; Col. 1:24)” [emphasis added]

It is not stressed enough in contemporary preaching that all Christians, by the very fact that they are Christians, are called to labor and even suffer for the salvation of souls, that is, to obtain from the Lord grace and mercy for those of our brethren who at present have not the sense to seek it, and who thus may be in danger of losing forever their immortal souls.  I have to realize that my life is really not all about me, because I am a member of the Body of Christ.  If I am consecrated to God and to Our Lady, then I have placed myself at their disposal, so I should not be surprised if they don’t check with me before doing something through me (or to me, as it may seem!) for the sake of the salvation of other souls.  That’s what I’m here for, and I simply trust that they are already taking care of me.  So there will be sacrifices required, as well as a greater availability to be made use of for the divine designs for souls.  My reward will not be lacking—if I don’t get all crabby about the demands placed upon me.  “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings…” (1Peter 4:12-13).

So perhaps it is easier to see now how generous souls like St. Faustina were so eager to embrace the will of God—even when this meant suffering for them.  They lived not for their own pleasure but were willing even to endure pain—contrary to ordinary human instinct—for the higher cause of obtaining grace for souls.  As St. Paul was quoted above, he would endure anything for the sake of the salvation of souls.  Maybe this doesn’t square with our own limited and earthbound logic, but the experience of the saints confirms repeatedly that there is much value in suffering in union with Christ for the spiritual benefit and salvation of souls.

We have to ask ourselves why we are here, what we live for, what our priorities are, and how much of our own pleasure and gratification we are willing to sacrifice so that other souls might enjoy the grace in which we now stand.  “You were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy… you stand fast only through faith, so do not become proud, but stand in fear” (Rom. 11:30, 20).  We owe it to others, who have not yet received what we have, to work for their salvation.  But living by the pleasure-pain principle will just not bear any fruit.  “Live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions [likes and dislikes, pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain at all costs] but by the will of God” (1Peter 4:2).

It really takes a deep cleansing of our spiritual vision and a consistent choice to live for Heaven and not merely for the benefits of this world (see Col. 3:1-4).  But that is what makes us most profoundly Christian.  Put your body where your mouth is, as someone once said.  Don’t just talk about Jesus, take up your cross and follow Him!  “Offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Peter 2:5).

So, when I start getting uncomfortable with the will of God not being ordered to my tastes or general well-being as I would have it, I have to realize, as the Pope said above, that I am “integrated in Christ’s consecration to the Father.”  Then I have to see what it looked like for Jesus to do the Father’s will, and the love with which He did it, and the immense fruit that was borne from it.  Then perhaps I can leave instinctive reactions and attitudes behind and be taken up into mysteries fully human and fully divine.

A Heart for the Word

Today we have a familiar Gospel reading (Lk. 8:5-15), the parable of the sower.  There’s always a danger, though, with familiar readings, that we think we understand them because we know the usual interpretation, and therefore we fail to reflect upon them deeply enough to discover the ways in which God wants us to apply them to our own lives.  The disciples of Jesus tried to reflect on what He said to the crowds when He first told this parable, and since they didn’t quite get it, they asked Him privately what it meant.  This extra step of seeking fuller understanding was rewarded by Jesus, who then began to open to them the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps when Jesus originally told the parable, nobody really could figure out the meaning of it.  He just spoke of a man rather indiscriminately scattering seed, which fell in various places and which, in three out of four scenarios, failed to produce fruit. Having said this, Jesus then said to the people, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  Evidently Jesus expected that anyone with the ability to understand the things of God would know what He was talking about.

When his own disciples came up empty and therefore asked Jesus to explain the parable, He said something to them which He also says to anyone who has been granted the grace to meditate upon the word of God: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom of God.”  This doesn’t mean that they had already possessed some extraordinary capacity to understand divine mysteries—since they were the first to admit that they didn’t understand.  For them to have been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom simply means they were chosen to hear the Son of God Himself reveal these secrets.  And since Jesus’ explanation of the parable has been written down, we who read it have thereby been likewise chosen, and so we have at least the potential to benefit from this revelation.

We learn from Jesus’ explanation of the parable that the seed which is sown is the word of God, and that the places in which it is sown are human hearts.  Jesus describes what happens in various ascending degrees of response to the word of God.  The first and lowest degree is that of people who don’t even believe in the word that is sown.  Jesus says that the devil immediately takes away the word from these unreceptive hearts, “that they may not believe and be saved.”  My guess is that those of us who call ourselves Christians are unlikely to be identified with this group, though that doesn’t mean that the devil has nothing more to do to us, since I think he is also involved in the failures of the next two groups that do not bear fruit.

Faring somewhat better, at least initially, than those from who the word is immediately taken away, are those who at first receive the word with joy. These, however, might be called Jesus’ fair-weather friends.  They are not deeply rooted in Him but accept his word only as long as fidelity to Him is not demanding or painful or costly.  When their faith is tested by trial or temptation (the Greek term means all three of these), they fall away, having believed only for a while.

This may sometimes be the case of new converts or people who have experienced a time of special grace that eventually yields to a time of testing for the sake of spiritual maturity.  What happened to that original joy, they think, when they were coasting along upon waves of grace and blessing?  Now they’ve run into struggles again, inner turmoil and confusion and groping around in apparent darkness.  If they were only in it for pleasant spiritual experiences, this rude awakening may prove too difficult and they withdraw from the God they think has withdrawn from them.  I didn’t sign up for this, they may indignantly declare, and so accuse Jesus in effect of false advertising, and they move on to something less demanding, but thereby exclude themselves from the deep mysteries of God and his Kingdom. The Lord calls these people “rootless” and they bear no fruit.

The next group manages to get a little farther in spiritual life, but still not far enough.  Evidently they don’t give up so easily, because they begin to show signs of bearing fruit.  But Jesus says that their fruit does not mature, so it remains sour, undeveloped, and hence unacceptable to God.  These don’t give up at the sudden onset of trials, but they allow themselves to be choked off—at first imperceptibly, but gradually more and more—by the “cares and riches and pleasures of life” and so get stuck in a state of spiritual immaturity that does not fulfill the will of God.

Perhaps the majority of Christians who are at least making some effort to be faithful fall into this category.  They believe in the beginning, don’t fall away at the first provocation, but little by little they get worn down.  So they retreat, make some compromises with the world, lose their original focus, start living more for this life than for the next, just getting more preoccupied with worldly affairs than with the things of God.  One might have little sympathy for those who are simply seeking riches and pleasures, but the word I pause on is “cares.”  Sometimes the cares of life really are legitimate ones, and it may even be part of our vocation to attend to them.

I think, however, that Jesus is here asking us to arrange our priorities.  It is similar to the passage in which Jesus talks about not worrying about food and clothing.  These might be symbols of the “cares of life.”  Jesus said, “The Father knows you need these things.”  Thus He pronounces them legitimate cares.  Yet He still urges us to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”  Evidently the reason that the fruit never matures in the hearts and lives of those who get choked by the cares of life is that they place these cares above the need to seek the Kingdom of God.  Having their priorities disordered, they do not advance toward a deeper life in God but gradually crowd out his presence with other interests and cares.

There is one group left, the ones who actually do bear much fruit for the Lord, the hearts in which the seed of the word of God takes root and manages to avoid those spiritual thorn bushes that choke off its true life. There’s a certain kind of heart in which this can take place.  The usual English translation is an “honest and good” heart, but I wondered about that.  “Good” doesn’t seem to need further elucidation, but what about “honest”? An honest heart is certainly an asset in any human endeavor, and dishonesty disqualifies us for receiving God’s favor, but is “honest” the best translation here?  I looked it up and noticed that the kind of heart the Lord really wants us to have for receiving the word is a kalos heart.  There, that is clear now, right?  What, do you not have ears to hear and understand?  All right, I will explain this mystery of the Kingdom.

The term kalos usually means “beautiful,” but it has numerous shades of meaning.  The famous title for Jesus, “Good Shepherd,” is actually the Pimen Kalos, the beautiful or noble shepherd.  Kalos can also mean excellent, of good quality, honorable, worthy, delightful, just, or virtuous.  That is the kind of heart that is fertile soil for the seed of the word of God.  In fact, in Matthew’s version, he actually uses the word kalos to describe the good soil itself in which the seed falls, so in this context the word can mean rich and fertile as well.  So, a worthy, noble, virtuous—and thus beautiful—heart is to the word of God what rich and fertile soil is to good seed.  When God’s word is implanted in such hearts, they bear a hundredfold fruit for the glory of God and the service of his Kingdom.

This fruit is not borne all at once, however.  Even in a heart that offers favorable conditions for receiving the word of God, the seed still has to take root, grow, flower, and finally bear fruit. That is why Jesus says such hearts will bear fruit with patience, with perseverance, with steadfast fidelity to God.  He therefore goes on to say, a few verses later: “Take heed, then, how you hear, for to him who has, more will be given…”  There is more than one seed of the word of God, more than one secret of his Kingdom.  The Lord would like to see a whole garden of divine mysteries flourishing in our hearts!  So if we are faithful to the graces He grants to us, responding with love and zeal, sparing no effort in cultivating the spiritual fruit, He will honor our faithfulness by granting more. But if we are lazy or preoccupied or self-indulgent, we will bear either no fruit or immature fruit, and both of these are unacceptable to God.  In fact, failing to bear fruit is not a neutral state of affairs.  If the devil couldn’t steal the word from us in the beginning, he’s still close at hand to take over our hearts when he sees evidence of negligence, disobedience, or any signs in our hearts that we are not putting the will of God first in our lives.

So, we have heard today the word of God, and thus a seed is planted in our hearts.  Shall we forget it as soon as we walk out the door?  That is like the devil stealing it away.  Will we end up rootless or choked by cares and pleasures simply because we did not seek first the Kingdom of God?  Or will we receive it in noble, worthy, upright, honest, and fertile hearts, so that we can be God’s delight by bearing fruits that please Him?

Another “seed” is about to be planted in us, in a very tangible way.  That is the Body and Blood of Christ, literally placed within our bodies so as to reach the depths of our hearts with his grace and love.  Will this divine “seed” take root in us and flourish?  What will He find when He enters our hearts—a hardened footpath, or rocks and thorns, or instead a welcoming environment of faith and love and willingness to serve?  If we are faithful, more will be given and we will go deeply into the mysteries of God—or rather, they will go deeply into us, putting forth deep roots, so that nothing in this life will be able to trouble us or shake our peace.  The humble are never disturbed by what others say or do to them, for the word of God is planted deeply in the humus of their humility. It is only pride that stirs up resentment, grumbling, and self-pity, and pride is the ruin of the rootless.

So let us bring forth fruit humbly, patiently, with steadfastness and perseverance.  Thus in looking we will see, and in hearing we will understand, and we will be assured of a place in the Kingdom of God.

The Embodiment of God (Part 2)

The “embodiments” of the Word in the cosmos and in Scripture find their true and complete meaning only in the person of Christ: in his incarnation, life, death, and resurrection.  Without Christ the Old Testament is an unfinished book.  Without Christ, the universe itself can be (and often is) mistakenly understood as a kind of impersonal divine force or consciousness.  But in this final stage of God’s plan of revelation and salvation, “the divine energies, reflected by creatures and objects, do not lead to anonymous divinity but to the face of the transfigured Christ” (Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism).

One of the greatest blessings resulting from that embodiment of God which is the Incarnation of the Son, is that Jesus Christ shows us the face of God.  Even though God revealed his name and his personal character before the historical birth of Jesus, no one could see his face.  To that extent He still remained obscure, unknown, inaccessible.  “Faceless” is another word for anonymous.  But the Inexpressible is expressed in the face of Christ, the Image of the Father.  “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).  A whole new world of personal relating is now opened up to us.    The human face of God reveals to us not only God but also that which is best and most beautiful, i.e., most like God, in ourselves.

“Think of the peaceful but heartrending, almost intolerable love that we feel when we see a child asleep.  How can such beauty exist?  How, through the flesh of a man and a woman, could God create this beauty beyond the reach of any ill-will? … Later, in adolescence, in adulthood, the beauty will disintegrate, heaven and earth will come into conflict.  It will be a long struggle to reconcile them.  But now, all is given, we see a true face of eternity flowering gently on the darkness, like a water-lily on the water.  Perhaps one day the grown-up will be reunited with this first face.  Just after a person’s death, God often gives him back the face he had as a child, asleep.  When we have learnt to die to self in order to be reborn in Christ, we too recover that face… But then our eyes are open…

“Christianity is the religion of faces.  Christianity means that God, for us, has become a face and reveals the other as a face.  Macarius the Great says that the spiritual person becomes all face, and his face all expression… Only the Face of God in humanity enables us to discern the face of all humankind in God…

“The real face emanates from the heart, if the heart is enkindled; it arises from the heart as the new Jerusalem will arise from the heart of the God-made-man and from deified humanity.  And as the new Jerusalem will transfigure ‘the glory and honor of the nations’, so the face arising from the heart transfigures the marks of experience, internalizes the beauty of youth” (O. Clément, On Human Being).

The embodiment of the Word of God is an everlasting expression of the love of God, to whom we pray: “Let your face shine on us and we will be saved” (Psalm 79/80:4).  God is telling us by means of the Incarnation that He is not simply “God before us and above us,” but that He is “God with us,” precisely as one of us.  And the Spirit has revealed that in the present Age of the Church, He is also “God within us.”

This Word that God spoke and clothed with flesh has communicated the message to us that God wants to share our lives to the fullest extent we will allow and open ourselves to experience.  He has proven that He is not an absentee Lord, vacationing on some inaccessible summit or in a distant galaxy.  He “pitched his tent” among us (literal translation of John 1:14). Christ was not afraid to “get his hands dirty” by mixing with the likes of you and me.  Indeed, He got his hands bloody when He stretched them out in the universal embrace of the Cross, paying the price of unrequited love, but never giving up on us.

On your quest for God, be careful where you walk, for you just might run into Him!  God is everywhere, remember, and He has more than one way of being present to you.  In Him we live and move and have our being, and He will speak to you in as many ways as you can hear.  God is not confined only to churches or to whatever limitation you place upon Him.  Listen:

The temple bell stops
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.*

So when you meditate on the mystery of Christmas, and when you look at icons or pictures of the birth of Christ, think not only of the Baby, even though He is the “Reason for the season.”  Think also of the star and the night sky and of the inscrutable prophecies of his coming, all that led to it and all that looks back to it, and all for which we still hope, for God is present therein as well. God has manifested Himself through creation, through the Scriptures, “and in these last days…through his Son” (Hebrews 1:2). Everything that comes from God is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

“Christ is the great hidden mystery, the blessed goal, the purpose for which everything was created… With his gaze fixed on this goal, God called things into existence.  Christ is the point to which Providence is tending, together with everything in its keeping, and at which creatures accomplish their return to God.  He is the mystery which surrounds all ages… In fact it is for the sake of Christ, and for his mystery, that all ages exist and all that they contain.  In Christ they have received their principle and their purpose.  This synthesis was predetermined at the beginning: a synthesis of the limit and the unlimited, of the measure and the immeasurable, of the bounded and the boundless, of the Creator and the creature, of rest and movement.  In the fullness of time this synthesis became visible in Christ, and God’s plans were fulfilled” (St. Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassius).

­­­­­­­­*haiku by Bashō (Matsuo Munefusa), 17th century Japanese poet

The Embodiment of God (Part 1)

[Praise the Lord, I found another one.  This was written way back in 2001—when I was evidently reading some fairly heady, but very good, stuff—in preparation for Christmas, though its scope is as wide as the universe.  So it’s only October now, but our thoughts can still be directed toward the awesome mystery of the Incarnation, which ought to be a part of our year-round meditation anyway.]

Every year in December we celebrate the coming into the world of the God-man, our Lord Jesus Christ.  The face of God became visible in the face of Christ.  But the moment of this manifestation was not a sudden invasion of the eternal into the temporal, of the Uncreated into the created.  It was not just an isolated event—however great, awesome, and infinitely significant—in the history of the world. It was the fulfillment and full expression of a kind of “incarnation” of the Word of God that began with creation itself.

Let us first recall the foundational truth that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).  All this is “according to [God’s] purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

So the coming of Christ in the flesh was not simply God’s answer to man’s need for a Savior after a long history of sin.  It was, from the beginning, the heart of God’s magnificent and all-encompassing plan to bring all things in heaven and on earth into everlasting union with his only-begotten Son, and thus into the unfathomable mystery of the All-holy Trinity.  This plan, eternally in the mind of God, was set in motion at the dawn of creation, revealed stage by stage in the Scriptures, and personally manifested in the Advent of Christ.  It will be definitively fulfilled when the Heavenly Jerusalem descends, when the “last enemy” (death) is destroyed, and when God is universally revealed and experienced as “All in all.”

St. Maximus the Confessor writes of three stages or degrees in the “embodiment” of the Word of God.  These are the material universe, the written word of God, and the person of Jesus Christ.  Through reflection upon these manifestations of the mystery of God, we can gain a deeper understanding into the great plan of God-with-us (though in this short space we can barely hint at the full reality).

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” exclaims the psalmist (18/19:2).  In the first stage of the “embodiment of the Word,” the created cosmos is a kind of a theophany, a “showing forth” of God.  The glory of God is reflected therein.  When God manifested his presence to his chosen people, in history or prophecy, powerful natural phenomena or cosmic signs often accompanied the divine revelation.  For some religions, the universe, with all its secrets and all its breathtaking beauty, remains a central focus point for the understanding and experience of God.

In the glorious hymn to God the Creator in the Book of Sirach, the presence and power of God are described as being manifest through the created cosmos.  In words very much like what would later be written by St. Paul, the author concludes: “by his word all things hold together…and the sum of our words is: ‘He is the all’” (Sirach 43:26-27).

We see most explicitly in the Letter to the Romans, that “ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and divinity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (1:20).  If the nature of God can be “clearly perceived” through his creation, then we should have no difficulty in accepting St. Maximus’ assertion that the universe itself is a kind of embodiment, or material means of self-expression, of the divine and eternal Word of God.

This does not mean we have to accept the pantheism that some people believe follows from the fact that God can be perceived and experienced in creation.  Scripture is clear in many places that God is distinct from and infinitely superior to anything He has created.  “For greater is he than all his works” (Sirach 43:29).  Even though God is immanent in creation, He is always transcendent as well: “For who can see him and describe him? Or who can praise him as he is?” (43:33).

So the Word of God both conceals and reveals Himself in the created universe, speaking mysteriously to us through our sense perceptions and in the enigmatic language of matter and energy.  This is the first act of God’s love in the plan to unite all things in Christ.  “…for love of us he hides himself mysteriously in the spiritual essences of created beings, as if in so many letters [of the alphabet], present totally in each one in all his fullness” (St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua).

The speech of the Word, however, is not confined to the voice of creation telling of his glory.  He also speaks with words intelligible to our reason, words written down as a lasting testimony of divine communication.  The words express mysteries beyond our understanding, as does the inarticulate cosmos, yet they speak to us in a different way than does the “book of creation.”  We are not only made aware of the divine presence, we are told specifically what it takes to live in a right relationship with God.

Thus the Holy Scriptures are the second “embodiment of the Word” in St. Maximus’ thought.  We are speaking here primarily of the Old Testament, especially as it prefigures the Incarnation.

God revealed Himself personally to Abraham and his descendants, to Moses and to the whole people of God in the history of Israel.  The words God spoke, and which were later written down, expressed his will, his mind, his love, and so were a kind of self-communication.  The words of God are a concrete expression of the Word of God manifesting Himself and entering into a personal, covenantal relationship with the people He had chosen.  So God “took flesh” in a sense, in the book of his self-revelation.

All the writings of the Old Testament (the “riddles and symbols of Scripture” in their deepest, mystical meaning), and all the mysteries of creation, are not ends in themselves but point to a definitive fulfillment.  Jesus Christ, the personal incarnation of the Son of God, is the ultimate embodiment of the Word.  In Him God’s plan for the fullness of time is revealed and consummated.  Hence the Gospels are the word of God par excellence, for they contain the human words of the ineffable Divine Word, and as such have unquestionable authority and eternal significance: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31).

To be continued…

Body of Christ, Communion of Saints

In the last post I wrote about the Body of Christ primarily as the Church here on Earth.  There is more to the mystery, however, since the Body of Christ also refers to the saints in Heaven.  Really, the Church is one, both on Earth and in Heaven, for Christ has only one Mystical Body, which “fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).

The Catholic Church has a lively awareness of the saints in Heaven, since they are our brothers and sisters in Christ and as such are eager to help us to attain to the glory they now enjoy.  This spiritual communion with God’s holy ones is a fruitful dimension of the life of the Church.  Therefore it is strange and even bizarre that some people accuse the Church of having relationships with “dead people.”  I would have to reply as Jesus did to the Sadducees: “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God… Have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead but of the living” (Mt. 22:29-32).

Somehow they think our veneration of the saints is a sort of necromancy or occultism, as was Saul’s summoning of the spirit of Samuel through the services of a witch (1Sam. 28).  First of all, that was the time of the Old Testament.  There was no Body of Christ, no communion of saints. Heaven was closed to all until Christ would come to this world, die and rise and ascend to Heaven.  Before then, all souls were consigned to the abode of the dead, called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek.  The just souls would eventually be delivered by Christ and taken with Him to Heaven.  But even now, when Heaven is full of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we don’t do what Saul did.  For one thing, he engaged the services of a witch, and this is forbidden now as well as then.  For another, he did this for the purpose of having his fortune told, trying to gain knowledge of the future that was otherwise inaccessible to him.  Catholics do not do this, either.  If God wants us to know something about the future, He will take the initiative, either by inspiring a prophet or sending a messenger from Heaven, like an angel or a saint, though this is relatively rare.  Our relations with the saints basically consist in asking them for their prayers, and trying to learn from the witness of their holy lives, so that we may be thus helped to live our own lives in a way pleasing to God.

There has been plenty of commerce between Earth and Heaven, as the Scriptures testify, especially with angels.  Angels were sent to Gideon, the wife of Manoah, the prophet Daniel, the priest Zachariah, and Mary of Nazareth, among others.  All of these engaged in a dialogue with them as the will of God was revealed to them and instructions were given.  St John, as recounted in the Book of Revelation, not only interacted with angels (e.g. 10:8-11), but also with at least one of the “elders” who surround the throne of the Lord (see 5:1-5).

So it seems that it is not only ancient Sadducees but even some modern Christians who do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.  If God could send angels from Heaven to mediate his word and will, in both the Old and New Testaments, why could Jesus not, for example, send his Mother or one of the saints on a similar mission?  In fact He has done so, on a number of occasions, as saints have testified, miracles have supported, and the Church has investigated and approved.  But there will always be some who say: “But the Bible doesn’t say that Jesus sends his Mother.”  The Bible doesn’t have to say “Jesus sends his Mother” for it to be true.  It’s enough that God has sent other messengers from Heaven to establish the principle that this is how God works.  He is a personal God and it is his will to work through persons.  It’s also enough that the Church—the fullness of Christ Himself, as I demonstrated in the last post—acknowledges this not only as theological possibility but as historical fact.

This brings us to another point.  Some people seem to ignore history altogether, as if once the ink was dry on the last page of the New Testament, God withdrew from human and ecclesiastical history, leaving us with a holy book but with no further interventions on his part.  But this is patently ridiculous. The Scriptures present us with the fundamental points of Christianity—the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ and the sending of the Holy Spirit, which also were historical events—but as Jesus promised, He has remained with his Church ever since then (and will do so until He returns), guiding her by the Holy Spirit, and continuing to manifest his presence and activity in countless ways.  There is copious evidence in the history of the Church that the Lord has indeed appeared to some of his faithful people after the Bible was written, and that He has sent Our Lady or certain saints and angels to accomplish his will, as He is wont to do.  He can do this; He is the Lord; this is part of the “power of God” that some people refuse to acknowledge.  What if God did send a messenger from Heaven to one of them?  Would they still refuse to believe simply because they already convinced themselves that God doesn’t do stuff like that?

This brings us again to the issue of a defective understanding of the Body of Christ.  In the last post I pointed out its defect in regard to the Body of Christ, i.e., the Church on Earth, but now we have to look at the Body of Christ, i.e., the communion of saints in Heaven.  Some seem to think, in practice, that Christ is some sort of disembodied Head that works only directly upon people in the world without making any use of the instrumentality of the members of his Body.  Why couldn’t Our Lady, for example, as the most exalted member of the Body of Christ, be his hands or arms, so to speak, embracing the world and bringing to us a message of his love and the power of his grace and mercy?   In Christ, “things in heaven and things on earth” are united (see Eph. 1:10), so if we are in Him, we are by that very fact in communion with the saints in Heaven.  Therefore there is no reason to believe that we cannot have loving relationships with our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of Heaven.  We, like they, are part of God’s family, only we have not yet reached their permanent state of glory in the presence of God.

There are plenty of biblical precedents for Christ exercising his power through members of his Body.  St. Peter healed a cripple (Acts 3) and made it clear that the power was from the Lord.  So Christ’s power was at work, but He chose not to exercise it directly, but rather to use the instrumentality of Peter, as He also did to heal a paralytic and raise a woman from the dead (Acts 9), thus giving us a biblical principle for understanding the way He works.  In Acts 8, Christ cast out demons and healed the lame through the instrumentality of St Philip.  In Acts 14 Christ healed a paralytic through the instrumentality of St. Paul.  Believers even sought Paul’s handkerchiefs because God used them to heal diseases and cast out evil spirits (Acts 19), and they lined the streets waiting for Peter to walk by so at least his shadow would fall on them (Acts 5)!  Shouldn’t it be clear that Christ works through members of his Body?  He has been doing this for about 2000 years now. Since there is only one Body of Christ, which exists both in time and in eternity—for his members are currently in one or other of these—the Lord is free to work through the members of his Body who are in Heaven or on Earth. Why then do people refuse to ask the saints to pray to God for them?  Why ask fellow sinners for prayers and not the glorious saints?  Why insist that one must always ignore the saints in prayer when God has repeatedly demonstrated that He works through his saints?

There’s a certain (perhaps unwitting) arrogance in the attitude of those who seem to think they can tell God what He can or cannot do in this world and in the life of Church, based merely upon their particular interpretation of the Bible.  But God is Sovereign and He will not tolerate anyone defining the limits of his activity!  “Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps. 115:3).

Well, let us just give thanks and be glad that the Lord has reopened the gates of Paradise by his death and resurrection, that He has created an immense family of adopted children of God, both in Heaven and on Earth, and that we can (to some extent) share their joy while they pray for us and encourage us on our arduous path to the Kingdom.  The door of Heaven is not sealed shut; God allows his saints and angels to visit us when He has reason to do so.  The Church is endowed with the necessary wisdom and discernment to know what is from God and what is not.  Thus the Lord has not left us orphans.  He is with us always and has granted the Church the grace to guide us unfailingly on the path of his will.  Let us then welcome the love and friendship of the family of God in Heaven, who are fervently interceding for us that we may share eternally the joy of the Lord—who is pleased to share generously his gifts through the instrumentality of his Body, the Church, on Earth as it is in Heaven.

The Bible and the Church

There seems to be some disagreement among Christians as to the relative value and authority of the Bible and the Church, so perhaps we ought to look at some facts of history and divine revelation in order to help settle the matter.

I think that all Christians accept the Bible as the word of God, as something indispensable for Christian faith and morality.  The Bible, however, in numerous passages, is notoriously difficult to interpret, and the main reason that there are thousands of Protestant denominations is that they simply don’t agree as to the correct interpretation (or application, perhaps) of Scripture.  The plot thickens when they all invoke the Holy Spirit as the source of their conflicting interpretations, which then brings us to the inescapable conclusion that, if all these people really are listening to the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit must be the greatest liar or deceiver that the world has ever known.  Since this is not true, we have to conclude that practically all the different interpretations of Scripture cannot have the Holy Spirit as their source, which means they are merely a product of human reason or opinion, which means none of them can have any sort of definitive authority.  So where does that leave us?

This is where the Church comes in.  Let us be reminded of a few facts.  The Church existed for a good two decades or so before the first word of the New Testament was written down.  This means that the Church lived by the oral tradition of the Apostles, and was thus quite capable of living the life of faith, good works, prayer, and worship without having a New Testament for proof-texting purposes or as the sole source of divine revelation and truth.  Someone once accused a Catholic that the Church was not Bible-centered, and the man readily agreed, saying that the Church was in fact Eucharist-centered, because Jesus instituted the Eucharist long before the New Testament existed, and the Catholic Church traces its origin directly to Jesus.

So we have to realize that the Church is not based on the Bible, but rather the Bible is based on the Church.  The Bible is the fruit of the Church’s life and testimony; it was produced by the Church, and the books that are contained in it were recognized and declared by the Church to be the word of God. In the first century or two of Christianity, many other writings were held to be of equal value to what are today the recognized Scriptures, and they were read along with them in the liturgical assemblies.  But by the Church’s authority, granted by the Holy Spirit, these other writings were deemed not to have the level of divine inspiration required to be accepted as the word of God.

(That is why it is the height of arrogance for an individual like Martin Luther to think he could personally decide which books are Scripture and which are not, for he eliminated seven books from the Old Testament.  It is an inadequate excuse to say he simply decided it was better to use the Hebrew canon than the Greek Septuagint: the whole Christian Church for 1500 years accepted the Septuagint canon of the Old Testament as the word of God, and virtually all the citations from the Old Testament that are found in the New Testament are from the Septuagint.  How could he possibly think he had the authority to cast out the word of God?  Was the version of the Old Testament used by the writers of the Gospels not good enough for him?  He also tried to remove the Epistle of St James from the New Testament, since it didn’t agree with his own theology—which in his opinion evidently meant it couldn’t possibly be the word of God—but thank God no one tolerated that particular folly.)

If the Church, then, has the authority to decide what is the word of God and what is not, the Church also has the authority to interpret and apply the word of God according to the will of God.  In the Acts of the Apostles, the leaders of the Church made an irreversible decision concerning the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Church of Christ.  Even though there were some general references in the prophets to Gentiles submitting to God, there wasn’t any indication in the Bible as to the conditions under which the Gentiles could be received.  The Church leaders had to decide that with the charism of the Holy Spirit, who would lead them to the whole truth.  (Besides, even the biblical references to Gentiles only pointed to their accepting the faith and practice of the Jews; here the Church was deciding a matter that would exempt the Gentiles from Jewish observance in order to serve Jesus Christ.)  The leaders knew they had the grace of the Spirit, and there was no “proof-text” to decide the issue.  What we read is: “It seemed good to the apostles and elders… it seemed good to us in assembly… it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:22, 25, 28).  The divinely-appointed Church leaders, not any individual believers, were entrusted to interpret the tradition in the Holy Spirit and to apply biblical principles—and wisdom directly from God—to the developing life of the Body of Christ.  It was so in the first century, and it has been so in every century, including the 21st.

The Church as such, especially in her magisterium, or sacred teaching office, is thus “bigger” than the Bible; the Church contains the Bible as an essential part of her precious heritage from the Lord.  The Bible is not somehow outside or above the Church, for the Church is entrusted with the task of interpreting it.  Some people tend to make an idol out of the Bible, as if there were nothing more to the infinite mystery of God than the words printed on those pages, but this is a manifest error.  (By the way, anyone who knows me knows how I love the Bible, and have read and studied and prayed and preached it for decades, so what I say here about its relation to the Church cannot be attributed to a lack of interest, appreciation, or reverence for the Holy Scriptures.)

Christ founded his Church on the “rock” of Peter (see Mt. 16:16-19) and declared that Hell would never prevail against it.  The successors of Peter thus have the authority to declare the meaning of the word of God, as well as its implications for the doctrine and life of the Church.  Catholics are sometimes criticized because we have an ultimate authority figure in the Pope (though dogmatic definitions are only taken after wide consultation with both the hierarchy and the faithful), but at least we limit ourselves to just one!  There are millions of “popes” outside the Catholic Church, because everyone who thinks he can interpret the word of God on his own has made himself the final authority—and history makes clear how little dissent from their opinions these “popes” will tolerate!

There is more.  Scripture itself testifies to the primacy of the Church.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Bible never says that the Bible is the “pillar and bulwark of truth”; rather, the Bible says that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of truth (1Tim. 3:15).  That means, among other things, that the Bible can’t be interpreted in a way that contradicts the authoritative teaching of the Church.  Sometimes people oppose the Bible to the Church because they have a faulty understanding of what the Church is.  Many non-Catholics have a very minimalistic (and thus, in fact, unbiblical) understanding of the Church, as if it were a sort of loose collection of individuals who happen to believe in Christ and who may or may not gather together regularly for prayer or worship.  They seem to give only lip-service to the fact that the Church is really the Body of Christ, a living “organism” through which is communicated the saving grace of God.  If the Church is merely a more or less random group of individuals, then of course no individual or group can speak for the Church, and everyone is on his own as far as interpreting the Bible goes.  But Scripture doesn’t support such a chaotic vision of the Body of Christ.

Finally, the Bible describes the Church thus: “the church, which is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).  So look, the Church is the fullness of Christ—Christ Himself, not only words by or about Him, as precious as these are.  Such a declaration is not and cannot be made about the Bible.  This is why the Bible is not above the Church: it is not above Christ.  So whatever the Church teaches is true, even if there aren’t proof-texts in the Bible for all of it.  The Church, founded on the rock of Peter and governed by his successors, is divinely mandated to apply the principles of the Bible and the “logic” of divine revelation to the whole of Christian faith and life, in all places and times until the Second Coming of Christ.

So it is the Church that is the pillar and bulwark of truth; it is the Church that is the fullness of Him who fills all in all; it is the Church that is granted the authority by the Holy Spirit to make definitive pronouncements on faith and morals: this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Tag Cloud