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

Archive for May, 2011

Jesus Overcomes the Darkness

[The following is a reflection by Christoph Friedrich Blumhardt, though I forget where I originally found it.  I saved it for future reference (and edification), and it seems to have its application in the present time—and probably at all times!]

It happened one day in Möttlingen, where my father stood in a fierce struggle with spiritual darkness, that he was walking in the countryside with several others from his congregation. He was so weighed down and agitated by the spiritual battle that his heart was ready to burst. Their path lay through a wood and across a large clearing. There they paused and my father said, “Let us sing a song I have written. It will encourage us.” He then recited to them the verse, “Jesus is the victorious King.”

Jesus is the victorious King
Who o’er all his foes has conquered;
Jesus, soon the world will fall
At his feet, by love o’erpowered;
Jesus leads us with his might
From the darkness to radiant light.

The voices of the people rang out heartily. But as they were singing they could barely believe their ears—they noticed that they were not singing alone but that an invisible chorus grew louder and louder around them. It was as though an unseen host of angels was surrounding them and singing together with them. Amazed and elated, they hurried home, where yet another wonderful thing happened. As my father entered the house of Gottlieben Dittus, who had been under demonic oppression and who had been so much a part of my father’s fight against darkness, she sang him the same song. It was as if the invisible singers had gone ahead of them to bring the verse to her.

This verse has become my battle cry and song of victory. True, the battles of that time have quieted down, but they have never ceased. Each year there are new battles, but Jesus continues to be felt daily, not only in our hearts, but also outwardly.

We can easily lose sight of this, the way things are going in the world. What we see today is not God’s salvation but mass corruption. Things have become so twisted that it is hard to even mention the gospel. The more time goes by, the more the powers of sin and unbelief, of death and hell, ensnare the world. All the more must we be convinced that God really has the world’s salvation in mind. And all the more must we gather courage to oppose the devils of this age and deny them their prey. For it is not God’s intention that anyone or any part of his creation should perish (2 Peter 3:9). The final generation will not be one of doom, but will consist of a people who shall be a blessing to the earth—a people who possess the Promise in joy and hope and are a light to the nations.

Even if our age has become riddled with evil, even if death runs rampant on the earth, we will not accept these as final facts. We must not sleepily say, “It is the Lord’s will. What will be, will be.” No, we must resist and, like Moses, throw ourselves into the breach. Just as Moses strove with compassion, patience, and faithfulness for the people of Israel, rebellious as they were, so we, with the same courage, and certainly also with the same repentance, must proclaim that light has broken into the darkness. Salvation and healing are the will of God. To the devil and to all the powers of hell, which accusingly proclaim the hopelessness of our situation, we will cry out, “You will not win! We know this because we know Jesus, who is victorious over every devil.”

The fact that Jesus became one of us, in flesh and blood, means that he identifies himself with all that belongs to us as human beings, even our darkest night (Hebrews 2:18). May this enter our consciousness with full impact. Let us not be led astray, especially in times of corruption when sin appears to have the upper hand and worldly seductions are so great… Although darkness reigns everywhere, it does so most especially within us. Therefore, let us each be on our guard. For before we realize it, we can become enslaved to corruption; even our most noble works can become tainted. If we are not careful we can become like the mute who could no longer speak the things of God (Luke 11:14). Perhaps this is why we so seldom see people joyfully, vigorously, happily looking up to God. We’ve become mute.

Though people talk plenty about various kinds of weaponry and other instruments of power, who speaks of God’s will? Instead we hear lies and words of ill will. “We want it this way,” says one, and “We will do it that way,” say another. But who cries out, “We want God’s will!”? Do any of us truly want Christ to conquer—to come and make his kingdom great among us?  Is he not the Lord?  Or do we think we can save ourselves?

Jesus alone shows us the way out of darkness. He is God’s power that leads to salvation (Romans 1:16). He reconciles all that is broken and not right. So we need never lose courage, even when the world is so terribly torn apart, or when we do not foresee a quick redemption from our own sins. We must not lose heart because of God’s delay. God has sealed the world with the name of Jesus. If this were not the case we would have all perished in our need long ago.

Our battle cry is: “Jesus is the victor.” This cry must be heard again and again, especially in our day. For Jesus was given authority over dark forces while on earth and he continues to exercise that authority in the here and now (Colossians 2:9). Our attitude should be: “Just wait until you have been wrested from the clutches of darkness and your eyes are opened—then you will believe!” When we have this attitude we will be the first fruits, light and salt, pioneers for the others.

We cannot see into the darkness—not like Jesus can—but we can perceive its influence everywhere and how it imposes itself through human corruption and perversion. Whenever war breaks out, for instance, the power of darkness dominates. Who is to blame? It is the working of dark powers that get personalized in human history. We are captives, Paul says, and stand under the dominion of darkness. And yet it is out of this dominion we are to be liberated. When Jesus said, “If I cast out the devil through the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Luke 11:20), this remains valid for today, not only when he lived bodily on this earth, but for us as well. Through the finger of God he wants to remove the darkness of our stubborn wills. When Jesus healed on earth he conquered the darkness. But when the hearts of the healed were open and believed, then a light from God broke in.

Perhaps it is good that darkness shows its ugly face from time to time, as it did at Jesus’ death. Yet Jesus remained steadfast. And herein lies our confidence. Right in the midst of the most terrible trials and fear and distress, Christ carries on his work and helps us so that we need not be mutes any longer. Light is possible for every pit of despair… This is the light of the gospel and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5).

The Divine Shepherd

Christ is risen!  We’re continuing the Good Shepherd theme in our post-paschal Liturgies.  In today’s Gospel (Jn. 10:27-38), talking about his sheep, that is, his faithful followers, Jesus says: “I give them eternal life.”  This is something only God can do, so it is a testimony to Jesus’ divinity.  This entire verse is, for me, one of the most consoling in all the Gospels: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.”

Jesus makes six assertions in the space of a single verse, and they are all full of blessing.  One: “My sheep hear my voice.”  We hear the Shepherd’s voice through the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church, and in the counsels of the Holy Spirit in our own consciences.  Thus we are instructed in the way to salvation.  Two: “I know them.”  This shouldn’t be interpreted in the general sense that God knows everyone and everything and thus He must know me, too.  No, He knows us personally, individually, even intimately.  He sees us, He loves us, He watches over us, He desires that we enter his Kingdom forever, and He hears the cries of our hearts while we are in this land of exile.  Three: “They follow me.”  This is the litmus test as to whether or not we really are among his sheep.  We have to follow Him, to be his disciples, to do his will.  We can’t rest in the fact that Jesus knows us personally if we are not going to obey Him, for it is only in doing the divine will that we will find eternal happiness.

Four: “I give them eternal life.”  This is the heart of the message, for that is what hearing his voice and following Him as those whom He knows and loves is all about.  It is the goal of our lives, the reason we have decided to follow Him in the first place.  Five: “They shall never perish.”  This follows naturally from Jesus’ gift of eternal life.  If we are going to live forever with God, of course this means we will not perish, will not be lost, will not be damned to Hell.  It is good that the Lord emphasizes it, though, because the fear of death, the fear of Hell, the fear of the unknown and of everything that might await us as our souls leave our bodies and the only world we’ve ever known, is something that keeps many souls in bondage all their lives, as it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14-15).  And finally, six: “No one shall snatch them out of my hand.”  This is the most consoling of all, for once we give our lives wholly to the Lord, and make every effort—with the help of his grace—to do his will in all things, repenting immediately whenever we fall, we know that no external enemy, be it man or devil, can rob us of our salvation.  The only way we can be lost is if we ourselves leap out of his hand through obstinacy in sin.  We can choose to leave Him in that way, but if we choose to be faithful to Him, no one can ever take us away from Him.

As the Gospel continues, there is another claim to Jesus’ divinity, even clearer than the previous one.  He simply says: “I and the Father are one.”  Of course, his opponents immediately took umbrage at this statement and even attempted to stone Jesus to death.  Jesus puts the whole matter in perspective with an ironic comment: “I have shown you many good works from the Father; for which of these do you stone me?”  He counters their rash impulses with an invitation to see the truth clearly.  It’s as if to say: “Wait a minute.  You are about to stone me for blasphemy, for insulting the Most High God.  Yet look at my works.  I have done nothing but honor the Father, and I have even manifested his power and glory in your midst.  If you are stoning me, it must be for one of these good works, for I have done nothing else.  Whence comes your rage?  How can you say that I blaspheme God?  Perhaps you ought to examine things more carefully, and then you will arrive at the truth.”

Jesus continued to attempt to reason with them from the Scriptures, and finally, when He realized they wouldn’t listen to Him, He simply said that if they wouldn’t believe in his words, at least they should accept the testimony of his works.  His works weren’t subject to argumentation; they were a self-evident testimony.  Yet the hearts of his opponents were so hardened that they still refused to believe in Him.

As for us, let us remain the sheep of the Good Shepherd, hearing his voice and following Him.  We have nothing to argue about with Him, for He gives us eternal life, and that’s all that should matter to us.  If He says He is one with the Father, then He is, and glory be to Him.  Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.  Christ is risen!

Seven Come Heaven

I’d like to offer a few random reflections from chapter seven of St Matthew’s Gospel, since I recently re-read it and prayed for some fresh insights.  The first thing that caught my eye was: “the measure you give will be the measure you get.”  The context of this is in Jesus’ famous (and sometimes misunderstood) exhortation not to judge, lest we be judged.  In that case, the measure given and gotten has to do with making pronouncements on that for which we are unqualified, that is, on the inner worth of individuals, which is only something God can do.  We can and ought to speak the truth about what is right and wrong in people’s observable actions—otherwise Rome burns while we nonjudgmentally play our fiddles (as the saying goes)—but that is the limit of our competence.  We may assess actions, but not judge souls.  If we overstep our limits, then we make ourselves liable to judgment.

Anyway, the thing about measure can be given a wider context.  I like to see it in terms of sacrifice and grace.  The more we give of ourselves, the more God will give of Himself to us.  Our self-gift usually is some form of sacrifice; God’s is his grace.  So if we want to receive, we have to give.  Perhaps this is part of the key to what Jesus says (again, famously) a few verses later: “Ask and you shall receive.”  If we ask but do not receive (which, I think, is the experience of all of us at one time or another), it may very well be because we expect to get without bothering to give.  But Jesus explicitly said: “the measure you give will be the measure you get.”  So maybe when we are asking God for something, we ought first to ask ourselves what we are giving as we seek to get.  Are we living self-indulgent lives and then asking for still more to pad our comfortable existence?  Or are we living sacrificial lives and only asking for that which will deepen our relationship with God or make us more fruitful disciples?  It’s easy to see which of these God will most readily answer.

I also skipped a few words to see what Jesus said in this way: “Ask… and it shall be opened to you.”  When I did this, it was in the context of asking the Lord to open a certain divine mystery to me, one which I desired to explore more deeply.  He did in fact begin to do so the very morning I asked, through both prayer and reading.  So what we wish to “get” from God need not be some material thing, or health or some other favorable circumstance.  I think He is pleased when what we really want is to go deeper into the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, and such we are quite likely to receive.

Something that is related to all the above is the passage about removing the log from one’s eye.  Again, I set it in a slightly different context than the original, which is similar to the not-judging one: if you want to correct your brother’s little faults, correct your big ones first.  But I read it more universally: not seeing clearly in order to rightly correct another, but simply seeing clearly.  “Take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly.”  There may be many things, besides our own faults vis-à-vis our neighbors’ faults, about which we have logs in our eyes.  The log may be that which impedes our spiritual perception in general.  This goes back to asking that divine mysteries be opened to us, which also goes back to giving before we can get.  Our “giving,” in this case, is the sacrifice of denying ourselves whatever constitutes that log-jam in our spiritual perception, which is usually some sort of selfishness or sinful habit that becomes an impediment to grace.  Give, make the sacrifice, and you will get, you will see clearly, and then divine truths and the very Heart of God will be opened to you.

Then there’s another famous saying, though not one that is happily shared around festive dinner tables or cocktail parties: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  The way of sinful pleasure and indulging in all one’s favorite vices is easy. It takes no hard-won strength of character to succumb to every temptation.  But Jesus says this is the way to destruction, that is, to eternal damnation.  There is a way, however, that leads to eternal life and happiness.  That’s the good news; the bad news is that this way is hard.  Repeat after me: the way is hard that leads to life, the way is hard that leads to life, the way is hard that leads to life.  There’s no getting around it: if you want to be saved, you’ve really got to fight the good fight.

Now this saying of Jesus about the two ways can be literally taken to mean that only a few will be saved and the rest will be damned.  I would hope that this is not the case, though it might be.  I’ve come to look at this passage a little more hopefully since I’ve been actively engaged in my behind-the-scenes ministries to those unfortunate wretches who are teetering on the precipices of Hell (see more about that here and here).  Jesus’ words might mean that many walk the path to destruction and few find the way to Heaven, during this life, but perhaps that does not exclude a last-minute rescue by the infinite power of Divine Mercy, through which the numbers of the damned and the saved become less disproportionate.  This, in any case, is what my prayers for dying sinners are all about.

Even if this is true, and I’m hoping it is, it does not at all give us permission to believe in “universal salvation,” as if it doesn’t matter if you are evil or good in this life, if you believe in Jesus or not, if you do God’s will or not, because you think we’ll all be saved in the end.  That would be an insult to the righteousness of God as well as a denial of the full meaning of human freedom.  In fact, Jesus says a few verses after this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father…”  Let’s bracket the “Lord, Lord” part and just read the bald fact: “Not everyone… shall enter the kingdom of heaven…”  There you have it; a chilling truth, but a truth nonetheless, because it has proceeded from the mouth of the Son of God: the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Only one criterion for salvation is given: doing the will of the Father.  If you do that, you will enter the Kingdom; if you don’t, you won’t.

So it’s useless to speculate on the proportion of the saved to the damned, on how many enter by the narrow gate (even only at the last minute), and how may heedlessly walk the easy and broad path to destruction.  What ought to concern you is what gate and what path you are going to choose, so you can increase by one the number of the saved.  Then start working and praying for others, so that many more will accept the grace to get on that hard and narrow path, the only one worth walking.

So, that’s what I have to say on Matthew Seven for now.  Let’s get those logs out of our eyes so we can perceive clearly the full import of divine revelation, that the Lord will open to us not only the riches of his divine mysteries, but also the door of his Kingdom as we pass from this life.  Let’s give it all we’ve got, for the Lord wishes to give us all He’s got—which is everlasting joy and irrepressible life in his sweet and heavenly Paradise.

Wellsprings of Eternal Life

Christ is risen!  Jesus said that his mission was to seek and save the lost, and we see a prime example of this in today’s Gospel (Jn. 4:5-42).  It is characteristic of the lost that they are not even seeking salvation, so Jesus has to take the initiative to rescue them, as He does with the Samaritan woman.  He continues this saving work even to the present day.

Jesus probably hoped that by now the world would have understood his message and opened itself to his gift of eternal life through the spiritual and sacramental life of his Church.  But for the most part it hasn’t, so Jesus has to continue his journey to all the “wells” of the world to seek out and save the lost.  The Gospel says that He was wearied with his journey, and with the merciless sun high in the sky, He sat down to rest.  I guess after nearly 2000 years of trying to save sinners who mostly resist Him, Jesus is indeed feeling rather weary.  Maybe He is saying now, as He said through the Prophet Isaiah nearly 3000 years ago: “What more could I have done for [them] that I have not done?” (5:4).  He has provided everything we need to find eternal life, but most people still seek their happiness elsewhere, and this must grieve the Heart of God deeply.  Sometimes I myself feel weary with the journey of this life in exile, though it’s no comparison to the weariness of the Lord on his endless and worldwide journey, as He ceaselessly invites reluctant souls into his Kingdom.  But He won’t rest until his house is full.

Today’s Gospel is all about eternal life, which is not surprising, since giving the gift of eternal life is the reason Christ came into this world.  That is pretty much all He talks about, in one way or another, and that is only because that is all that really matters.  You won’t hear Him giving advice about success in business or politics, and you won’t hear Him stressing the need for financial security or even temporal happiness.  Jesus always tries to get us to look toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  Seeking anything short of that will inevitably lead to disappointment, and eventually to despair and damnation.  Nothing in this life brings lasting satisfaction or joy, the lies of the advertising industry notwithstanding.  Our founder Fr Boniface once told us of a proverb he heard while in Africa: “This life is a footbridge; don’t build your house on it.”  That is sound advice, but most people aren’t interested in hearing it, yet the truth eventually catches up to us all.

The Samaritan woman’s series of failed marriages was testimony to her vain search for happiness and security in this life, and so perhaps Jesus saw that she was finally ready to hear the Gospel of eternal life.  But it took a little while for her to be able to see beyond the immediate concerns of this present life to accept what Jesus was trying to give her.

She had a lot to learn.  She knew neither the gift of God nor who it was who was offering it to her.  It is true that Jesus at first spoke in somewhat veiled language, using images that would be familiar to her.  This was simply to pique her interest and to get her to talk to Him.  If Jesus had begun by speaking of the Uncreated Energy of the Holy Spirit communicated to those who accept baptism in the name of the All-Holy Trinity and who thus experience an inner transfiguration that enables them to grow progressively into the likeness of God, which then makes them fit for eternal communion with Him in the glory of his heavenly Kingdom, she might have just walked away, thinking, “Poor man; he must have been sitting out here in the sun too long.”

So instead, Jesus just asked her for a drink, and then explained that He was able to offer her a better kind of water.  Once he got her talking about water, He was able to subtly move the conversation toward the mystery of divine grace, the indwelling Presence that is like a spring of water, an inexhaustible Source that provides not mere temporal survival, but rich and glorious eternal life.

Even though she still didn’t quite understand, she was irresistibly drawn by Jesus’ words, and she evidently decided that whatever it was He was offering, that is what she wanted.  But even though grace is free, it isn’t cheap.  It cannot be received without repentance.  Therefore Jesus had to risk her rejection, but He could not help her if she chose to remain in her sin.  So He broached the delicate subject by asking her to return with her husband.  When she heard those words, “your husband,” the wounds of her heart must have instantly re-opened.  “My husband!  Which one?  The one that left me, the one that beat me, the one that cheated on me, the one that promised me the world and turned out to be a deadbeat?”  Jesus knew her whole history, both her sin and her pain, and He wanted to cleanse the former and soothe the latter by the living water of divine grace He was offering her.

When Jesus finally revealed Himself to her as the long-awaited Messiah (something He told no one else outside of his inner circle of disciples), the woman’s enlightenment had begun.  She realized that the answer to her fruitless search for happiness would not come from finally finding a good man, or from any other form of material or emotional security.  What she was really longing for, without being able to articulate it, was eternal life.  Suddenly the Messiah appeared saying, “I will give you eternal life.”  Her heart resonated to this, and hope mysteriously welled up within her, as if God had just created that spring of living water in her soul.

So she went to share the good news.  “Can this be the Christ?” she announced to her fellow Samaritans.  But the real question, the one she kept to herself, was much more profound and personal: “Can it be that my wretched life is finally going to be renewed?  Can it be that my heart and soul will now be healed and that I will discover a joy that this corrupt world can never give?  Can it be that I have found Him whom my heart loves—not as a new husband but as my Savior, my Lord, the one who gives the Gift of God: the very possibility of breaking free from the straightjacket of sin and misery, enabling me to embrace life, a life fulfilled in God?”  We cannot know precisely what she was thinking, but it was surely something way beyond theological speculations concerning the Messiah, or the question of which mountain is the one where people ought to worship.  Once Jesus reached her heart, she knew her life would never be the same again, and she couldn’t be happier about that!

Jesus must have watched her with some satisfaction as she ran back to her village.  He was doing the will of his Father and accomplishing his work.  When the disciples returned with food, He wasn’t even hungry, and they didn’t understand what was going on, or who that woman was who had just bounded joyfully away.  Jesus simply smiled as He told them that there goes his food, his sustenance, for He had just rescued a soul from sin, secured a new daughter for his Father, sought out and saved what was lost.  He was “gathering fruit for eternal life,” and this is what He told his disciples they would be doing as well.

Jesus still journeys throughout the world preaching the Gospel of eternal life to any soul that will listen.  He still offers the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Source of that inner wellspring of grace by which the mystery of eternal life begins even in this life.  But eternal life, the life of grace and communion with God, is not compatible with sin and with the ways of a corrupt and self-indulgent world.  So it can’t be merely superimposed on a sinful soul.  The life of grace has to replace the life of sin.  The consistent teaching of the Scriptures is that the life in Christ is new life, different from the life of sin that leads to death.  During these days of the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord, we sing of this new life and we try to let it transform us, especially through the Holy Eucharist.

But the Lord will perhaps have to bring up some delicate subjects that we’d rather not discuss with Him. He may have to ask us some questions about things that present obstacles to the gift He wants to give us. This, however, is not merely for the sake of pointing out our faults.  The Lord knows that to the extent we are attached to any sin, to that extent we are separated from Him.  And He finds this situation to be entirely unacceptable, for He wants our union with Him to be complete, and He wants our joy to be full.  He has to get us to realize, as He has been trying to do on his 2000-year journey throughout this world, that happiness cannot be found in anything but Him and in his Kingdom.  The world cannot supply it; there is no lasting happiness or security in anything short of eternal life.  So if we set our sights too low—even temporarily—we are not only cheating ourselves out of present happiness, we are placing ourselves in danger of losing eternal happiness.

Even though to follow Christ is not all happiness and pleasure as the world sees it—because we have to take up our crosses and deny ourselves if we are to be faithful to Jesus—if you ask someone who really knows Jesus whether they prefer the demands of a life of faith to the pleasures of a life of sin, they won’t hesitate to say they prefer Jesus and his Cross to the passing satisfactions and ultimately empty promises of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Some people might try to have it both ways: Jesus on Sunday and the world during the week.  But it doesn’t work that way; that will not bring eternal life.  Whoever is not with Jesus is against Him, and to be with Him is a full-time occupation.  Look at all the conversion stories in the Bible: once they met Jesus and decided to follow Him, they left everything else behind and didn’t look back.  True conversion is a radical break with evil and with former ways of life.  To embrace eternal life is to reject everything that is incompatible with it.

I won’t be able to convince you of this, because the preaching of the Gospel is insufficient in itself.  It is only meant to direct people to the Lord.  They have to meet Him personally, repent of their sins, embrace Him as their Hope for eternal happiness, and begin to follow Him devotedly and consistently.  The Samaritans became interested in Jesus when the woman testified to Him, and so they invited Him to stay with them.  After their firsthand experience of Him, they told her it wasn’t because of her words that they now believe, but because they met Him personally, and now they know that He is the Savior of the world.

Let us then seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, making eternal life the goal of our whole life—the litmus test, as it were, of all our thoughts, words, acts, plans and desires.  We will be able to do this if we keep our attention on that inner wellspring of living water, the grace of the Holy Spirit, and allow ourselves to be thereby purified and refreshed and refocused on the things that really matter, the things that lead to eternal life.  Christ is risen!

None of Your Business!

Christ is risen!  In [Saturday’s] readings we hear of the Good Shepherd (Jn. 10:1-9) as well as one of his lost sheep that He went to extraordinary lengths to rescue (Acts 26:1-5; 12-20).  This was one of the most famous rescues in history, and it has borne much spiritual fruit even to this day.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that the sheep who belong to the Good Shepherd follow Him because they recognize his voice.  It is clear, then, from the reading from the Acts, that before Saul converted he was not a sheep that belonged to Christ.  For he did not recognize his voice.  Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?”  And his answer was, “Who are you…?”

It wouldn’t take long, though, before Paul would easily recognize the voice of his Master and would joyfully follow Him, even at the price of persecution and imprisonment and severe beatings, and ultimately of martyrdom.  Jesus first did for Paul what He would then send Paul to do for others: “to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”  Paul literally had scales fall from his eyes as he moved from blindness to sight, both physically and spiritually.

There’s something interesting that Jesus says to Saul just after He got his attention by blinding him and knocking him to the ground.  (The fact that Jesus had to do that, by the way, shows how locked in to his misguided mission Saul was.  Nothing short of this would have been sufficient to redirect his zeal to the service of the Gospel of Jesus.)  What Jesus says is this: “It hurts you to kick against the goads.”  This is an image taken from agricultural life, in which sharply-pointed cattle prods were used to keep the beasts of burden working hard.  When they rebelled against this annoyance by kicking against them, they only caused themselves more pain.  So Jesus was telling Saul that by his resistance to the message of Jesus to the point of actually persecuting Christians, he was only causing more harm to himself.

I read this passage to prepare for preaching on it at a rather appropriate moment, because it seems that I too was kicking against the goads, and it was doing me no good at all.  I hadn’t been sleeping well for some time, with the unpleasant result that it not only affected my mood but also made it very difficult to stay alert for prayer.  In general, I could see no good in it whatever, so I brought my case to the Lord, certain that my cogent reasoning on the matter would help Him see things more clearly and so hear my prayer for a good night’s sleep!

But it dawned on me as I read this passage from the Acts that I was indeed kicking at the goads and it was only doing me harm.  Complaining to God is never a source of joy or spiritual fruitfulness, since it usually flows from self-pity or an unwillingness to suffer anything for Him.  I finally saw that if it pleased God to allow me to suffer some small trial for his own good purposes, then who was I to meddle in his affairs and try to change things?

Then I received a revelation: My own life is none of my business!

That should have been clear to me by now.  If I’ve made vows to God as a monk, and if I’ve been ordained to his Jesus’ divine priesthood, and if I’ve also consecrated myself to Our Lady and thus placed the care of my life in her motherly hands, how can I possibly  think my life is my own business?  I’m a sheep that belongs to the Good Shepherd and I listen for his voice and follow Him wherever He goes.  So the things that happen to me, or don’t happen to me, in this life are not really mine to arrange, calculate, manipulate, or complain about.  I’ve handed my life over to others, and so I have other voices to listen to besides those of my own thoughts or desires or feelings.  It’s good for me that I have done this, for otherwise I’d just be kicking against the goads and doing myself harm.  I think it’s no coincidence that Jesus likened us to sheep, which are known to inhabit the lower echelons of intelligence in the animal kingdom, thus reminding us that it really is in our best interests to listen to his voice!

So let us stop kicking against the goads, and humble ourselves, realizing that our lives are none of our business but rather are the Father’s business, so that is what we need to be about.  And let us allow Christ to give us a little wake-up call, to open our eyes, that we may turn from darkness to light and to the power of God, that we may receive a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Him—an imperishable and blessed place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Does Anybody Really Want to Go to Hell?

We often hear it said that those who end up in Hell are those that really want to go there.  If this is true (and in a certain sense it is), we ought to discover how this can be so.  It seems to me that no one really wants to go to Hell insofar as Hell is a place of unspeakable torment, pain, anguish, misery, and of every foul, disgusting, terrifying, nauseating thing that mad, demonic minds can devise.  If some people do more or less resign themselves to an eternity in Hell or actually look forward to it (having believed the lies of the devil about the power and the excitement they’ll have there), they don’t really see it for what it is.  So in that sense, I think people don’t really want to go to Hell, even if they eventually discover that such is the only place they justly belong.

There is, however, a sense in which people do want to go to Hell, or at least find Hell to be the place most conformable to their perpetual state of mind and behavior.  You see, there are a lot of people who are habitually filled with anger and hate.  Now I would venture to say that the majority of people who are such do not really enjoy being angry and hateful all the time.  There’s hope for the salvation of these, because they are likely to try to work against these things and to try to find some healing or at least some way to manage it all so as not to end up as self-isolated sociopaths (which is one of the criteria for eligibility for Hell).

But there are people who seem really to thrive on anger and hate and similar hellish attitudes and behaviors, and these are the ones most likely to “want” to go to Hell.  Hell is a place where you can be angry and hateful 24/7 (not that there are 24s or 7s in Hell), and no one will fault you for it.  Hey, they’re all more angry and hateful than you are!  The problem is that in Hell rage is impotent and only creates frustration, which only creates more rage, etc.  And you get to hate all that, and everyone else, and God, and everyone you ever knew who gave you a raw deal in life and, wait a minute, why aren’t they all here?  That’ll really make you mad!

I’ll briefly mention the following, at the risk of getting my throat slit, but it’s not only my opinion; I’ve heard it from wiser men than I.  Islam is a religion of anger, and they seem to relish being angry, and they are always venting their rage, on the flimsiest of pretexts and trumped-up accusations, usually against Christians.  Daily I read in the news from all over the world: “Mob of Angry Muslims Burn Christian Churches”; “Muslims Attack Christian Village, Killing Many;” “Muslims Destroy Christian Homes and Businesses”; “Angry Muslims [fill in the blank: bomb, shoot, stab, burn, hack with machetes, etc] Christians at Worship” etc, etc, etc.  I think they want to be angry; I think they want to hate; I think it energizes them somehow, distracts them from a contemplative approach to God that would dispose them to deeper truths about religion than “kill the infidel.”  It has been said that one of the reasons for their profound anger is that their god is not a Father, their god is not Love.  He simply demands submission, and so they demand it of everyone else in his name, but they are not loved, they have neither Father nor Mother in Heaven to comfort and cherish them.  Therefore they envision their “paradise” as nothing more than the fulfillment of human lusts (and if you’re a woman, all you get to do is cater to the lusts of the men.) They also have no Savior; no one takes all their pain and sin into himself, freeing them from the endless cycle of hate-creating rage and rage-creating hate.  Their god has not loved them enough to enter and absorb their pain and has not sacrificed himself for them.  If my religion had a god like that, I’d be angry, too!

Of course, God is a Father, and He has loved all of us enough to send us his Son as our Savior, to enter our misery, take it upon Himself and lift us up into his everlasting love and into his Heaven, which is the bliss of communion with God and all his holy ones in utter joy and purity and love and peace.  This is not to say that Muslims as such are condemned to Hell.  But if they thrive on anger and hate and domination and violence, Hell is the only place they’ll fit in.  That applies to everyone without exception, you and me, too.

I used to think that, even if we have lived a bad life, once we saw who God really is as we passed from this world to the next, we would embrace any chance He might offer to repent, and we would long to leave our past evil behind, having finally seen the Truth.  But the more I read and reflect on the mysteries of life and faith, I see that this is not automatically the case.  I do believe, and I pray often for this, that the Lord in his mercy will offer dying sinners a last chance to repent, even as their souls are leaving this world.  The hard truth is, though, that at least some of them will obstinately refuse.  That is because rage and hate are all they know, and they don’t want peace and fellowship and heavenly sweetness.  They want to go on venting their anger forever, and so Hell is just the place to do it!

Did you ever feel like this?  You are angry or hurt about something, so you nurse your rage and even get some sort of dark satisfaction out of the fact that you are now making everyone else miserable.  Your self-pity increases, and along with that your anger and self-hatred and other-hatred.  Then when someone tries to help you or reason with you, you brush them off or snap at them or deliberately say hurtful things to them, because unrighteous anger always hurts others.  And all the while you grumble your own self-justifications, your mood gets darker, and even the thought of happiness repels you and you hate it, and you might just as well stay in your rotten mood, because you’ve gotten used to it and it takes a lot of effort and humility to break out of it.  You are now in Hell.

That’s what it’s like, and that is why people choose to go there.  No one wants to be stabbed with the devils’ pitchforks, but many people seem to want to nurse their wrath and lick their wounds for all eternity.  There is a place for these people.  God does not want them to go there, and He doesn’t force them to go there.  He is the Reconciler, the One who comes to patch things up and to draw out the hateful poison.  But some people will have none of it.  They prefer the darkness, the rage, the wounded pride, the unrestrained “freedom” to pour out endless streams of invective and blasphemy.  So there.  Take that, and that.  The trouble is, when they find themselves in the place where they can be as selfish and angry and mean as they wish, they discover that no one listens to them.  No one cares.  Everyone else is shouting the same things, and no one listens to them, either, for Hell is a mad cacophony of hate.  And those who may once have loved them are nowhere to be found.  These wretched souls are utterly forgotten by everyone, and no one even misses them.  Even the perverse satisfaction of causing pain to someone who cares for them is denied them.  So they get to be angry about that as well.

It really is true, then, that those who are in Hell got what they wanted.  That doesn’t mean they’re happy with it now, for they can’t be happy about anything, for they can’t love anything or anyone anymore.

Jesus had very good reasons for saying everything that He did, especially about loving and forgiving others and refraining from anger and vengeance.  The Lord knows that we can become hardened in our negative emotions and resulting behaviors, to the point that we know nothing else and eventually want nothing else. Then, when the gates of Heaven open, we flee, because the light is too bright, and the sweetness burns like acid, and the songs of joy are like the howls of a bad conscience.  If that happens, then yes, we do want to go to Hell, just to get away from all that beauty and goodness which condemns us just by being what it is.

So if what we really want is Heaven, we need to start cultivating the heavenly virtues here below.  It is harmful to indulge our wrath, and we might just get addicted to it.  St Paul says to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy (see Phil. 4:8).  That is the beginning of setting our minds and hearts on things of Heaven.  Deep down, we all really do want Heaven, we want God.  But it’s also possible to become so twisted and shriveled inside that we choose what is worst for ourselves, almost as if we took pleasure in spiting ourselves.  It’s like committing suicide just to hurt someone else, though we are the only losers.  God can prevent all this, and if we’ve already gone partway down that path He can rescue and heal us.  We have to want Him, though; we have to want what is good.  We have to want to bless and to love.

You may think I’m not very loving toward the Muslims, but the truth is that I grieve for them and I pray daily for their enlightenment so they can break free from the wrath they both fear and inflict. Then they can find peace and joy and salvation in Jesus, who loves them, and in the Father, who loves them, and in the Holy Spirit, who loves them.  This is the true God and eternal life, as the Apostle says.  I pray that all would embrace it and discover that what they really want is to rest in the peace of Christ forever.

The Son Works and the Paralyzed Rise

Christ is risen!  “My Father is working still, and I am working” (Jn 5:17).  These words of the Lord help explain today’s Gospel (Jn 5:1-15), even though for some reason they have been excluded from the prescribed reading.  They follow immediately upon the event proclaimed, which is the healing of the paralytic in Jerusalem.  In order to understand the Gospel, it is not enough simply to recount the facts of particular events.  We need to hear the explanation either of Jesus Himself or the evangelist so that we know the reasons for what Jesus does.  Then we can more easily put the Gospel into practice.

The whole controversy surrounding Jesus’ healing of the paralytic had nothing to do with the fact that He exercised divine power to work a miracle.  One would have thought that after hearing of such a wondrous thing, the authorities would have wanted to meet and honor such a powerful and benevolent figure.  But no, it so happened that the miracle was worked on a Sabbath, and therefore the wonder of it was obscured by the issue of keeping the Sabbath rest—which evidently excluded the working of miracles!

So Jesus had to explain Himself, and in the process actually got Himself in deeper trouble than He already was.  God the Father, explained Jesus, was exempt from the rule of the Sabbath. Thus He continued to work, to sustain the universe in being and to take care of all his children.  It is true that Scripture says God rested after creating the whole universe, but it doesn’t say that God needs regular breaks like the rest of us do.  So God is exempt from the Sabbath.  The Jewish authorities would probably have accepted that.

But Jesus got into trouble in two ways: first, by speaking of God as his Father, and then by putting Himself in a parallel position: “My Father is working still, and I am working.”  So here’s the reasoning: God is exempt from the Sabbath and thus can work; Jesus claims that He too is exempt from the Sabbath and can work, for the same reason; therefore He claims to be equal with God.  The evangelist spells it out in the next verse: “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the Sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal to God.”

So, having worked a miracle that only God could work, Jesus gets to be accused as a lawbreaker and a blasphemer.  It is to his credit, though, that He continued to do the Father’s work among them, for as He would later say, He only does what He sees the Father doing, and He has come into this world only to do the Father’s will.

We see in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles (9:32-42) that Jesus continues working even after his ascension into Heaven.  It’s a little different this time, because He works through St Peter.  Jesus did in fact say that his disciples would do the works that He did.  So Jesus, when He walked the earth, healed paralytics, and now we read that Peter healed a paralytic, using almost the same words: “Rise, and take up your bed.”  But there is an important difference, for before telling the paralytic to rise, Peter said: “Jesus Christ heals you!”  So, regardless of whose hands communicate the grace, the power is the Lord’s.  Also in this reading, St Peter raises the woman Tabitha from the dead, by the same divine power.

This is the whole basis for the mystery of the intercession of the Mother of God and the saints.  We ask them for help, and through their prayers, and as it were by their hands, divine power comes to us.  Jesus Christ heals, delivers, and saves, but He often is pleased to do it through his holy ones, and we see that believers have understood this from the very beginning.  What happened when Tabitha died?  The Bible doesn’t say that her friends prayed to the Lord to raise her up.  It says that they asked St Peter to come without delay!  Why ask Peter when they could have gone directly to the Lord?  Because they knew that the Lord works through his saints, and that is precisely what happened, for at Peter’s word, the woman rose from the dead.   The power was God’s, but it was manifested and applied only when Peter was invoked.

That is precisely what we do when we ask Our Lady or one of the saints to intercede for us: we’re asking that God will work through them as He worked through Peter and Paul and so many of his other holy ones throughout history.  Since they are so intimately united to God in the glory of Heaven, He is pleased to hear their prayers for us and to heal and help us through their hands.  Christ is generous and magnanimous and not at all insecure about his prerogatives, so He delights in involving his beloved Mother and his saints in his work.  So if people ask us why we invoke the saints at times and do not always go directly to God, we must humbly but clearly reply that we are following the example the Bible gives us!

Let us return to Jesus and the paralytic, for there are still lessons to be learned here.  We are unlikely to criticize anyone for doing a good deed on the Lord’s Day, so that particular issue is not one we must focus on—though it is more likely that people in our time are guilty of not doing a good deed on the Lord’s Day, like going to church and keeping the day free for spiritual pursuits and wholesome recreation.

One of the lessons has to do with sin and its consequences.  In the beginning of this Gospel passage, it doesn’t say that the paralytic was sick because of his sins, but toward the end this is clearly implied.  Jesus told the paralytic after He healed him: “See, you are well!  Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.”  The double implication here is that sin was the cause of the man’s suffering in the first place, and that he will suffer even worse things if he falls back into sin.  St Peter, whom we seem to be highlighting today, has something to say about this matter as well.  “Whatever overcomes a man,” he writes, “to that he is enslaved.  For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first… It happened to them according to the true proverb: ‘The dog turns back to his own vomit, and the sow is washed only to wallow in the mire’” (2Peter 2:19-22).

So Jesus was trying to tell the man that if he returns to his sin he will be worse off than he was before he was healed.  I think it is not too hard to see how that is true in our own lives.  Sin can be a kind of addiction.  St Peter says it, and Jesus does too, in somewhat different words: “Whoever sins is a slave to sin” (Jn 8:34).  As one becomes more enslaved as one feeds an addiction, one also becomes more bound by sin the more it becomes habitual.  And if one does manage to repent and turn from sin, if he falls back again the enslavement is likely to become even stronger, and there are the additional elements of guilt and the consequences of the failure to cooperate with divine grace.  Our Lady urged us, in one of her apparitions, to “fight to the death for the purity of your souls.”  Fight to the death.  That’s how important it is, not only to break free of sin, but to remain in God’s grace—negatively seen for the avoidance of hellfire, and positively seen for the spiritual fruitfulness and transformation of our souls through continual growth in communion with God.  Our determination to be lovingly faithful, with the help of God’s grace, will keep us securely on the narrow but blessed path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

“See,” the Lord tells us, after granting us some special gift of his mercy or healing power, “you are well.  Sin no more, lest something worse befall you.”  They may seem like hard words, since everyone falls into sin at least once in a while, to a greater or lesser degree.  But first of all we have simply to accept that the Lord did say this, and therefore it is true.  We also have to be aware that the Lord doesn’t leave us to our own limited powers when He gives us difficult commands or counsels.  “I am with you always,” He said, before ascending to his Father.  “My grace is sufficient for you,” He told his afflicted apostle.

When we still fail, it is probably for one of three reasons.  First, we do not hate sin sufficiently as to be willing to “fight to the death” to avoid or overcome it.  Our concupiscence hobbles us and keeps open the back door to our hearts, allowing access to the temptations we’re supposed to be valiantly fighting.  Second, we do not trust sufficiently in the power of God’s grace to heal or strengthen or protect us, but like St Peter (once again!), walking on the water and overestimating the supposedly superior forces of wind and water and gravity, we sink, even though the Lord already has given us to power to overcome.  And third, we hinder our progress by making excuses for ourselves, and so we never really break out of habitual failures, for we sabotage our own victory by telling ourselves, in effect, that such victory is unattainable, for this reason and that.  But the Lord is still trying to whisper in our ear: “My grace is sufficient; come on, get up, you can do it; take My hand and you’ll see what I can do for you.”

The paralytic seemed to be guilty at least of this third element, since he immediately made an excuse when the Lord volunteered to heal him.  The Lord overrode the man’s excuse, however, and didn’t even dignify it with a reply.  He just said: Get up, you’re healed!

That reminds me of something that happened here many years ago to our founder, Fr Boniface.  When I entered here, he was in a wheelchair and we had to push him around wherever he needed to go.  Pushing a wheelchair through mud on a rainy day was not too pleasant a task, so I think we were all praying for his healing.  But one day, a man came here, like St Peter to Tabitha’s friends, and he prayed over Fr Boniface, telling him to be confident of his healing.  Fr Boniface was no excuse-making paralytic.  After the prayer, he said: “Well, if I’m healed I should get up!”  So he leapt out of his wheelchair and zipped out the door, not looking back.  We all were dumbfounded for a moment, but then rejoiced—both in his miraculous healing and in our being able to fold up the wheelchair and put it away!

So let us heed the lessons of this Gospel and allow Jesus to heal and deliver us and make all things new.  Let us hate sin and love righteousness and purity of heart, and let us deem God’s grace sufficient for our needs, however deep our wounds may be, and however intractable our problems may seem.  And let us not hinder our healing with excuses, but let us be determined to get up and walk.  We will surely rise, for Christ is risen!

Paschal Persecutions

As we continue celebrating the Resurrection of Christ, the readings today [they are for Saturday, actually] speak to us of threats and persecutions (Acts 9:20-31; Jn. 15:17 – 16:2).  That should serve to notify us, among other things, that the joy and grace of the Resurrection do not insulate us from suffering for Him who died and rose for us.

In the reading from Acts, St Paul gets a little taste of his own medicine, but he takes it all in stride.  He had been persecuting Christians, but as soon as he converted and started preaching Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, in both Damascus and Jerusalem attempts were made on his life, precisely because he now belonged to the same group that he was formerly persecuting.  At that time it was not considered something extraordinary to be persecuted for believing in Jesus.  In fact, the reading ends by saying that the Church was growing and enjoying the consolation of the Holy Spirit, as if the persecutions did not disturb the peace of the believers.

Jesus warned his disciples, after all, that such would be their lot, even before He Himself went to his death.  In the Gospel He tells them not to be surprised that the world hates them, for it hated Jesus first, and a slave is not greater than his master.  The reason Jesus gives for this hatred and persecution might at first seem obvious, but later in the Gospel it is perhaps not so clear.  He says that his disciples will be persecuted for Jesus’ sake because their persecutors do not know God.  They know neither the Father nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit who bears witness to the Son.  Fine.  A world of unbelieving, vicious pagans hate and attack Christians.  But wait a minute.  At the end of the Gospel, Jesus says: “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is thus serving God.”  Serving God by killing disciples of the Son of God!  So the plot thickens.

It is not, then, merely a matter of believing or not believing in God that makes one an attacker of Christians.  It is not believing in the true God, in God as his Son has revealed Him, that is the criterion.  In the earliest days of the Church, it was the Jews who persecuted Christians in the name of God.  Today it is most often Muslims who kill Christians and think they are serving God by doing so.  I don’t really know who Allah is, but whoever he is he is not the true God, the All-Holy Trinity.  Either they are serving an idol or they have personified and deified their own rage and hate, but they are certainly not serving God by killing God’s children.  But of course, they don’t see it that way.  I recently read a comment on a blog discussing the question as to the eternal fate of Osama bin Laden and whether or not God loved him.  This comment was evidently by a Muslim, who simply said: “Osama has no relation to Christian theology.  He died a martyr for Allah and is now in paradise.”  But Christian theology is Christian theology only because God Himself has revealed and given it to us as the truth about God and man, which the Church has faithfully handed on down through the ages.  Islam appeared centuries after this definitive divine revelation of the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and then dared to contradict it.  Who or what, then, was its inspiration?  We can only hope and pray that those who kill Christians in the name of their god will be granted the opportunity to repent before they have to stand before the judgment seat of the only-begotten Son of God.

So it is as Jesus says.  Those who hate and persecute Christians do so because they do not know God, even if they protest that they are thereby serving Him.   Whether or not you or I shall be called to make the ultimate sacrifice at the hands of Christ-hating fanatics, we still are called to be witnesses of Jesus in this world.  The Lord said He chose us out of the world, so that we would belong not to the world but to God, and for this the world will hate us.  So be it.  Jesus also said He sends us the Holy Spirit from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who leads the Church into the whole truth by guiding her life and teaching, and who thus bears witness to Jesus, the Founder and Lord of the Church.  Here is where we come in as well, for Jesus said, “You also are witnesses.”

This Gospel passage is the first indication in these Easter days that we are heading toward Pentecost, toward the renewed immersion in the Grace of the Spirit, who witnesses to Jesus in and through us.  Let us then be ready and willing to do so, to stand for the truth at all times, even in the face of the blasphemies and attacks of those who claim to be serving God but who hate us because they do not know the true God, nor Jesus Christ, whom He has sent.

Blessed are the Pure of Heart, for They See…

I’ve had it in mind for some time to do a little series on the Beatitudes, and I still might get around to that before too long, but I think I need to jump to the middle of the list today to say something about this one: Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.

There are two reasons for this.  The first is the meaning of the messages of Our Lady who appeared to a certain nun as “Our Lady of America.”  They are mostly about purity of heart.  (You can check the page on my other blog for more information.)  Purity is one of the most beautiful characteristics of the Blessed Virgin, and so it is that her Immaculate Heart is both the symbol and the deepest inner reality of her person and her holiness.  The Byzantine Liturgy often expresses this mystery, by calling her the Immaculate Virgin, the Undefiled Virgin, and a host of other titles, sometimes simply calling her the All-Pure.  Some time ago during the Divine Liturgy, the Theotokion (hymn to Our Lady) began, “O Pure One, we have acquired your protection…”  I couldn’t even get past “O Pure One” before the tears welled up and I had to pause for a while.  I don’t know why it happened at that moment, but it just seemed that her whole mystery and truth were summed up in those words and somehow opened up to me. It’s not even necessary always in our liturgical prayers to invoke her name, Mary (though it is sweet to do so).  All we have to say is “O Pure One,” and everyone knows precisely whom we mean.

The other reason is that it has been my good fortune (or rather, Good Providence) some months ago to have met and been asked to offer spiritual direction to someone whom I believe actually has a pure heart, something so rare that I don’t know if I’ve ever truly encountered it before (at least in an adult; many children have pure hearts).  She has to remain anonymous since I do not yet know how the Lord wishes to make use of her extraordinary gifts in a more public manner (or even if He does, but I think He does).  She seems to be a clear example of how the pure of heart see God.  Though innocent and childlike, she is not immature.  She lives and works in the world but has somehow managed to be untouched by its corruption.  She is entirely selfless and is willing to make any sacrifice for anyone if it would help them to come closer to God, and she loves the Lord above all, and lives only for Him.  As St Paul exhorts us, she sets her heart and mind on things of Heaven, but for her these things are part of her life on Earth.  She often speaks of “Jesus and Mary and the beautiful ones [angels] that accompany them,” saying that to know and love them is simply “everything” in this life.

She has had many extraordinary experiences.  For example, when she was a child Our Lady appeared to her several times and communicated to her in a wordless manner a number of “lessons” which have taught her how God wants her to live in this world.  Even though she “sees God,” her experiences are not visions of the glory of the Heavenly Kingdom and the future life.  What she sees is simply what is really there in this life, that is, in the here and now, but what the rest of us with our polluted hearts are unable to perceive.  (By the way, in my fairly extensive conversations with her, I’ve kept as critical an eye as possible, looking for things that could indicate delusions or errors or fraud and the like, but she has thus far passed all tests with flying colors.  It all rings true to what I know of genuine mystical experience and how God has worked with and through his saints in the history of the Church.)

When I say she sees what is there, I mean that the things we accept in faith she often experiences directly.  She sees angels, for example.  I mentioned here that I have two guardian angels, though it’s too much off the subject to explain here how I know.  I never mentioned that to my pure-hearted friend, but once she said to me: “Whenever I see you, I see two angels with you.”  This is perhaps only a minor confirmation, but it is not insignificant, and it is rather consoling as well!  When she goes to church, especially during the Mass, she sees angels surrounding the altar and worshiping Christ in the Holy Eucharist.  Now our faith and tradition tell us this is so, but it is quite encouraging to hear someone actually describe it.  (She has not read any mystical literature, and she doesn’t even know the teachings of the Church very well, having never been properly catechized—this is part of my job, to fill in those gaps for her.  She doesn’t have a theological vocabulary; she has simply been in a more or less direct communion with God for most of her life. Only now has she begun to talk to anyone about it, and only now is she realizing—to her great delight—that what God has been showing her for years is actually what is in the Bible and the teachings of the Church!)

She will quite ingenuously say things like, “At that part of the Mass, you know, when the priest holds up the Host and all the light shines from it…”  I have to remind her that the rest of us don’t usually see that light radiating from the Consecrated Host!

There are many other things she has told me—quite profound experiences of the mysteries of God, and I even witnessed one that happened spontaneously when she was here during Holy Week (believe me, you know you are in the presence of God when such things happen; I could hardly keep from weeping)—and maybe one day they will make it into a book or a blog, but my point here isn’t just to recount extraordinary experiences.  It is, perhaps, to wonder a bit out loud as to why these experiences are extraordinary.  Why aren’t they ordinary?  Why don’t I see angels at the Liturgy, or the glory of Christ in the Eucharist, and why is my access to profound divine mysteries so limited?  I’m not sure of the answer from God’s side, but I’m pretty clear on the answer from mine: my heart is simply not pure enough, and therefore I do not see God and the things that perhaps He would like to show me if only I had the capacity to perceive.

Many questions can be raised about why God preserves some people in purity of heart from their childhood, and why some are allowed to be defiled and damaged even at an early age, why some receive extraordinary gifts and others do not, and to what extent it is possible to attain to real purity of heart and the attendant clear spiritual perception, after sustaining serious spiritual damage through years of immersion in mortal sin, etc.  I don’t have answers to these (I don’t even know if there are any we would understand in this life, except to say they belong to the inscrutable ways of God), nor am I all that interested in racking my little brain in search of them.  But I’m pretty sure that we would all perceive more than we do right now if our hearts were purer than they are right now.  God will fill us with his grace when there is room for his grace in us, when we are not filled with the rotten fruits of selfishness, unbelief, and the various pollutions with which people tend mindlessly to defile themselves.

What if we really desired purity of heart?  What if we longed for it and made every effort to keep ourselves from the defilements of the world, and struggled, through prayer and self-denial, to refine our love so that nothing would get in the way of our total oblation to God?  Our Lady of America said, “Cleanse your souls in the Precious Blood of my Son. Live in His Heart, and take me in, that I may teach you to live in great purity of heart, which is so pleasing to God.  Be my army of chaste soldiers, ready to fight to the death to preserve the purity of your souls.”  Are we ready to “fight to the death” for the sake of a pure heart, a heart that sees God?  Let us ask the Pure One, the one with the Immaculate Heart, to intercede for us and to show us the way.

We aren’t angels, but we live in their presence, and they would like us to see what they see and to know that the world is full of the glory of God, if we could only perceive it.  My pure-hearted friend says that the angels are pleased to notice when someone recognizes their presence, for it is then they realize our hearts have begun to see.

The Tomb and the Bridegroom

Christ is risen!  We sing the following in our Resurrection Matins: “Pious women ran in tears to You, O Christ, bringing myrrh to you as dead; but instead they adored You in joy as the living God and announced your mystical Passover to your disciples.”  That is a concise summary of the meaning of this second Sunday after Pascha as we continue our liturgical celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.

This Sunday is known as the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, or sometimes simply as that of the Holy Myrrh-bearers, since as we see at the beginning of the Gospel (Mk. 15:42 – 16:8), some men were involved as well.  It’s curious, though, why the Gospel of Mark was selected to proclaim this mystery, since only in John are the men described as actually bringing anointing oils to the burial of Jesus, and also since Mark’s version is the shortest and least detailed one—and it even seems to have been somehow accidentally abbreviated, since it ends with the women running from the tomb in fear and not saying anything to anyone!  But we know from the other Gospels that in fact the holy women became “apostles to the apostles” after they had heard the announcement of the Resurrection from the angel and had even met the risen Christ on their way from the empty tomb.  So today I’ll use a composite version from the Gospels to get the full story and thus a fuller understanding of the mystery.

The women, still being law-abiding Jews, could not work on the Sabbath, so after Jesus was laid in the tomb (it was already after sunset on Friday and so the Sabbath had begun), they rested, as St. Luke says, according to the commandment.  But by sunrise on what would soon be known as “the Lord’s day,” they were on their way to the tomb, to fulfill that act of love and piety which is the proper burial ritual for the dead.  The women, unlike the men, were fearless.  Not only was it they alone who stood at the Cross with Jesus (with the notable exception of St John), it was only they who dared to brave the armed guard at the tomb of their beloved Master.  The disciples, as we heard last Sunday, were cowering in fear behind locked doors.

It was the power of their love for Jesus that compelled the women to seek Him, to minister to his body, even in the face of the possibility of arrest and imprisonment, or even ending up as Jesus did.  Scripture says that love is stronger than death, and in their case, love was stronger than fear of death, for they would go to their Beloved at all costs.  Their concern was not the anger or the strength of the guards, but only how they might remove the huge stone from the entrance to the grave so as to gain access to the body of Jesus.

In all the accounts of the Resurrection, angels are there at the empty tomb to announce to the women the startlingly good news of the Resurrection of Jesus.  But in St Matthew’s account, they actually see the angel arrive like a flash of lightning and roll away the stone before their eyes.  His heavenly brilliance was enough to paralyze the guards with fear, so that was one problem out of the way.  But, ironically, now that the problem of the stone was solved, the women could not do what they had come to do!  That didn’t matter to them, however, since they were both profoundly amazed and overjoyed at the unhoped-for proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus.

Let us look a little more closely at this delicate mystery of the tender love of these women for Jesus.  There’s a text in our Resurrection Matins that I have often found a little odd, simply because it is factually inaccurate.  It says that early in the morning at sunrise, myrrh-bearing virgins were seeking Christ.  The Scripture identifies some of these women in reference to their sons (the mother of Joses, the mother of James), so these were definitely not virgins, and while Mary Magdalene was not married, I don’t think she has ever been described as a virgin.  So they were mainly myrrh-bearing mothers (and those of you being honored on this Mother’s Day can perhaps find in them some new patron saints).

But there may be a symbolic reference in the liturgical text.  I received an Easter card from the Norbertine Sisters, and on the cover of it was an artistic conflation of the Gospel stories of Jesus’ Resurrection and of the five wise virgins who kept vigil to meet their Bridegroom.  So it doesn’t really matter that the holy myrrh-bearers were not virgins, because they represented a virginal, that is total, loving, and spiritually exclusive espousal to their beloved Jesus, who had referred to Himself, and was referred to by St John the Forerunner, as the Bridegroom.  The Liturgy picks up this imagery as well: “Exult and celebrate and rejoice… seeing Christ the King coming from the tomb like a bridegroom.”  Instead of lamps filled with oil like the wise virgins of the parable carried, the myrrh-bearing women brought vessels of fragrant spiced oils with which to anoint the Bridegroom.

Anointings, let us remember, are not only for the dead.  That is only one kind.  There are other anointings that are proper to festive occasions, and still others that belong to royal and priestly consecrations.  “Christ,” which means the “Anointed One,” was anointed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism.  So perhaps the myrrh-bearers, lamenting on the way to the tomb, were thinking of the Song of Songs, in which the lover says of the beloved: “anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore the maidens love you” (1:3).

Later in this same book we read, almost as if the myrrh-bearers were expecting Christ to greet them on the other side of the stone: “I gather my myrrh with my spice… and my heart was thrilled within me.  I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh.”  What happens in this story in the Song of Songs is not so different from what happened at the empty tomb: “My beloved had turned and gone… I sought him but found him not.”  The angel at the tomb was aware of this: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth,” he said.  But “he is not here; he is risen!”

According to St Matthew, the women then ran from the tomb, full of both fear and joy, and suddenly there was Jesus before them, and they fell at his feet and embraced Him.  So the Song of Songs goes: “I will rise now and go… I will seek him whom my heart loves… When I found him whom my heart loves, I held him and would not let him go.”

So this Sunday’s approach to the Resurrection is not simply a theological one.  It is not primarily the indispensable proclamation that Christ has conquered sin and death and was exalted by his Father for the redemption of mankind.  It is a different but equally indispensable proclamation; it is a love song, a testimony to the indestructible relationship between lover and beloved, between human beings and their Savior.  So I think we really can, in a mystical sense, call these holy women “myrrh-bearing virgins.”  They were risking all to go and meet their Bridegroom.  Their love could not be quenched or cowed or in any way diminished because of the obstacles that lay before them.  The courage and sacrifice it took to go to Him perhaps enhanced their love still further.  They didn’t even give in to despair over the ultimate obstacle: their beloved Bridegroom was dead!  So the Lord rewarded them beyond all imagination by overcoming the ultimate obstacle, the last enemy, death, in his own body, and he rose triumphantly and gloriously, as the psalmist says, like the rising sun, “which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber” (18/19).

So how shall we make this beautiful mystery our own?  If we don’t already have deep love for the Lord, we can’t instantly manufacture it now simply because it happens to be Easter.  The myrrh-bearing women didn’t just begin to love Him on their way to the tomb.  They grew to love Him through years of discipleship and fidelity, through hearing his word and keeping it, through following Him wherever He went, serving Him, accompanying Him even on the way of the Cross.  That is how love comes to be and how it grows.  Those who just liked to see miracles or whose love was superficial or diminished by fear were nowhere to be found at the Cross or at the tomb.  It was those who loved Jesus so much that they could not live without Him who risked all to serve Him, even when hope seemed to be lost.  These were the ones whom He rewarded with the announcement of his Resurrection and with his first appearances.

While women have the privilege of becoming brides of Christ, and men seem to have to content themselves, like the Forerunner, to be “friends of the Bridegroom,” it is possible for all to enter into an intimate union with the Lord on mystical and sacramental levels.  The human soul as such has a certain character that might be called feminine, since it is created to receive from God his gifts, and it can only bear fruit in spiritual life after it has received the seed of the Word, as Jesus explained in the parable of the sower.

So at that deep level of soul and spirit, where Christ abides in us and we in Him through communion in the Holy Mysteries, the level at which, as St Paul says, “there is neither male nor female” but “all are one in Christ Jesus,” let us receive his love and let us love Him in return.  Let us not be deterred or discouraged by any obstacle thrown in our path by the world, the flesh, or the devil.  But like the myrrh-bearing virgins, the myrrh-bearing mothers, and even the myrrh-bearing men, Joseph and Nicodemus, let us take the risk of loving the Lord as He loved us, to the end, to the full, even to folly, as it were.  It certainly seemed like a very dangerous foolishness for those women to publicly show themselves as disciples of One who was condemned and executed as an enemy of the state and even of the established religion.  Yet love compelled them.  St Paul would later write: “The love of Christ compels us… He died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2Cor. 5:14-15).

Go, then, to meet the Bridegroom, cost what it may.  Realize that He is in fact the One whom your heart loves.  Christ is risen!

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