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

Archive for July, 2011

His Marvelous Works

Outside of major feast days and special liturgical times like Lent and Christmas and Easter, the Byzantine liturgical calendar for Sundays focuses almost exclusively on healings and exorcisms performed by Jesus.  So it’s no surprise that today the Gospel (Mt. 9:27-35) is about a healing and an exorcism (and this particular exorcism includes a healing).  This is all well and good, for we ought to praise the Lord for all his marvelous works done on our behalf.  It’s only the homilists who are left wondering how they can preach on the same Gospels over and over without saying the same things over and over, so that the congregations don’t have to keep yawning and looking at their watches over and over.

My solution to this conundrum today is to refer to my old friend Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis and his detailed and profound commentary on the Gospel of St Matthew.  He always sees things in the Gospel that I don’t (and not only because he’s proficient in the Greek language), so I’ll rely mostly on his wisdom today, so you don’t have to keep hearing the same things over and over.

He says enough on this Gospel to give at least a two-hour homily, so I’ll just focus on a few points.  We see in other healings of blind men in the Gospels that after they receive their sight, they begin to follow Jesus.  This is an appropriate response to what Jesus has done for them.  Yet the blind men in today’s Gospel follow Jesus before He heals them.  The text reads:  “As Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed him, crying aloud, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!”  Erasmo comments that “disciples are made by their own need… Jesus’ disciples become such out of an avowed malady at the very center of their being.”  He calls the disease of the blind men a “chronic, irreversible affliction,” and so only the divine Physician could help them.

It isn’t usually those who are wealthy, healthy, famous, and surrounded by all the pleasures and comforts of life who choose to follow the poor, despised, and crucified Savior.  It is more often the afflicted and sick and miserable ones, who can easily recognize their desperate need for help, who turn to the Lord.  But that doesn’t mean, as the anti-Christian media mogul Ted Turner infamously said, that “Christianity is a religion for losers.”  Or maybe it does, if we accept the truth that we are all losers, due to original sin and all the unoriginal sins we have added to it during our lives.  What Mr Turner fails to understand is that when we losers decide to become disciples of Christ, we thereby win the victory over sin and death, and the rest of the losers—however wealthy or influential they may be in this quickly-passing life—end up eternal losers, forced now to be disciples of the devil for endless ages.

The poor and afflicted who recognize their need have a distinct advantage over the rich and powerful who don’t.  All of us have need of a Savior, but wealth and prestige keep some people from readily realizing it.  In the Book of Revelation, Jesus declares: “You say: ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (3:17).  The blind men in the Gospel had no illusions about their desperate need, and so as soon as they heard that Jesus was passing by, they stumbled after Him until they entered the house in which He was staying.  Erasmo says that this house of Jesus represents the Church, where all the sick and needy come to Jesus for healing and salvation.

In this particular healing, Jesus does not ask them what they want, nor do the blind men say that they want to see.  Jesus only asks them if they believe in his divine power.  Once they say yes, Jesus heals them.  It is as if Jesus simply wanted them to recognize that He is the One who is their hope, regardless of what He might or might not do to meet their specific needs.  He may have been looking in their souls for a prayer like this one that the psalmist prayed: “It is you, Lord, who keep the lamp of my hopes still burning; shine on the darkness about me, O my God!” (17/18).  (Perhaps that would be a good title for the Lord: “The Lamp of my Hopes.”)  Jesus then fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah that reads: “I will lead blind men on their way and guide them by paths they do not know; I will turn darkness into light before them” (42:16).

After receiving their profession of faith, Jesus extends his hand and touches their eyes.  A word would have been enough, but the blind understand touch as a privileged form of communication.  As Erasmo says: “The contact transmits vision as divine mercy courses through human nerves and skin… Jesus’ gesture united the spheres of divine compassion and human helplessness.”

Jesus declared, as He often did, that this healing was granted them because of their faith.  He knew that their faith was more than a matter of mere words.  Even though Jesus asked them if they believed in his power to heal and they said yes, their faith was manifested even before He talked to them personally.  They had cried out to Him as He walked by, and when He kept walking they followed Him, as if recognizing that the perpetual night in which they lived was about to be ended through the breaking of a new dawn, the Sun of Righteousness rising in their midst, and they therefore had to embrace Him at all costs.  The words of the psalmist were realized in them: “In your light we shall see light” (35/36).

Erasmo offers a little insight that we non-scholars would never discover.  The form of the word used for “opened” for the eyes of the blind that were healed is a very rare one, utilizing the grammatical phenomenon of the “triple augment,” the lengthening of three vowels in the same word for a special emphasis.  So he translates: “their eyes were opened wide.”  Indeed, how could they not be, as they gazed in wide-eyed wonder and joy at the beauty and light of this world, and especially the face of Him who called Himself “The Light of the World.”  The one previous time this triple augment is used in Matthew is at the baptism of the Lord, when Heaven opened wide for the Holy Spirit to descend upon Jesus as He rose up from the waters of the Jordan.

“Jesus,” says Erasmo, “is an opener, a revealer, an unveiler: he first manifests the secret being of God to man, and then he opens up the faculties of man that he might be capable of perceiving such a revelation.  Christ Jesus’ mediation between the Father and mankind is the very substance of his task on earth.”

After He opened their eyes, Jesus gave them a stern and solemn warning not to tell anyone about it, but He still made use of a pun.  He literally said: “See! And let know one know it.”  The command of Jesus for them to keep silent is usually explained by the so-called Messianic Secret, that Jesus did not want anyone to know who He was before the proper time.  Yet He did not reproach them for loudly calling Him the Son of David, a clear messianic reference.  So Erasmo suggests that it had more to do with Jesus not wanting people to regard Him merely as a wonder-worker.  They would then flock to Him either to get rid of their own diseases or merely to enjoy the spectacle of the manifestation of unusual powers.

“The two men’s healing from physical blindness is the historical and corporeal sign (in the manner of a sacrament) of their enlightenment through faith that establishes them in the contemplation and adoration of the person of Christ.”  Perhaps if this could be both explained properly by the healed men and understood properly by the people, Jesus would have told them to go and spread the news.  But despite his strong admonition, the newly-seeing men could not contain themselves and broadcast the news everywhere.  In this they seem to prefigure the universal proclamation of the Gospel after Jesus’ resurrection.  Having been enlightened (which is the early Christian term for baptism), one cannot but bring news of the Light to those who are still in darkness.

The case of the man who was mute and possessed by a demon is quite different than that of the blind men.  They had taken the initiative to seek Jesus out and follow Him.  There was some personal interaction: Jesus wanted to know if they believed, and then He stretched out his hand to touch them.  In this new case, the man is completely passive.  He is brought by others to Jesus.  Nothing is said but that the demon was cast out and the man began to speak.  We have no account of what he said.  Perhaps this striking difference in the two cases has to do with the difference between natural afflictions and demonic ones.  At least the blind men still had the will to live, the energy to pursue the Lord, the desire to make themselves known to Him.

The other man was under the control of another.  He could have said with the psalmist: “The enemy pursues my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground… like the dead, long-forgotten.  Therefore my spirit fails; my heart is numb within me” (142/143).  Erasmo comments: “The mute man is possessed by an evil spirit: to that extent, he has ceased for the moment to belong either to God or to the human family… His neighbors’ action of bringing him to Jesus in fact bespeaks a dramatic tug-of-war for his soul between the possessing demon and the compassionate fellow humans who have come to his aid… Dominion by the forces of darkness, however, surpasses the competence of merely human virtue: the Son of God must intervene.  And, in the face of this confrontation, the demon capitulates without any struggle.  Jesus simply ‘casts him out.’”

The point here is simply that Jesus has made him whole, re-created him, as it were.  The devil wishes only to disfigure, degrade, and destroy human souls made in the divine image.  It is a properly human thing to speak, and so by rendering him mute the demon sought to “undo the beauty and wholesomeness of God’s masterpiece, man.”  But, as St John writes, “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1Jn. 3:8).  Despite the lack of detail in this particular episode, the message is clear: Christ is about his Father’s business, healing, restoring, and saving that which sin and the powers of darkness had tried to ruin.

So, as we reflect on these marvelous works of the Lord, let us remember to come to Him in all our troubles and needs. It may be that we feel we are burdened with “chronic, irreversible afflictions” that resist all efforts at healing.  But Jesus asks us, as He asked the blind men: “Do you believe that I can do this?”  Perhaps we are at times so crushed that we cannot even articulate our need, like the mute man oppressed by demons.  Let us then at least ask someone to pray for us, thus being brought before the Lord by compassionate others.  Jesus can deliver us as He delivered the possessed man.

In all things let us realize that Jesus is the answer—even if we seem to get no answer from Him!  The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, and He wills our salvation, which is the ultimate healing, the ultimate enlightenment, and the ultimate deliverance.  Let us cling to Him in faith, for He has promised, and He will do it.

Find Yourself

Since the 1960s, there have been several of what we might call “lost” generations.  I say this not only because so many have fallen away from the Faith that their immortal souls may indeed be lost.  I say it also because many people seem so intent on “finding themselves” that I simply have to assume that somehow they must have gotten lost.

But when people say that they are trying to find themselves, they usually don’t do so because they think their souls are in danger of eternal hellfire.  They often come to a point of some sort of crisis of identity or meaning in their lives, and they try to make sense out of it all by “getting in touch” with some sort of inner truth or experience that will result in achieving that vague sort of ideal known as “self-fulfillment.”

The Lord has a word in Saturday’s Gospel (Mt. 10:37 – 11:1) for just such seekers: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”  This word of the Lord turns upside down the often narcissistic quest for one’s self, and thus gives us the true perspective.  Jesus tells us that if we set out to find ourselves we will ultimately be frustrated, but if we are content to lose ourselves for Jesus’ sake, we will discover both our true identity and the true meaning of our life and destiny.

St Paul is a good example of this.  At a certain time he was quite sure that he had “found himself,” knowing who he was and where he was going.  He gives us an account of both his lineage and his credentials in Philippians 3.  But what good did all of this do for him?  “I count it all as loss,” he said.  So, he who thought he had found himself discovered just the opposite.  But having lost all that for the sake of Christ, he finally found what He was really searching for all his life: the righteousness that comes from God, and hence the key to the Kingdom of Heaven.  His identity crisis over, he could now say: “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  He found his true self in Christ, and in Christ he also found the fullness of the meaning of life and hence hope for eternal happiness.

He didn’t have to indulge himself and try to live out all his fantasies in order to “find himself.”  He just had to find Jesus Christ, and then everything else fell into place.  It wasn’t too hard for Paul to find Christ: the Lord simply knocked him to the ground and said (I paraphrase): “What the heck do you think you are doing?”  That began an extraordinary relationship in which the Apostle had to learn much through suffering, but the fruits of it endure to this day, to the incredible extent that his personal letters are now known as the word of God.

Paul had to learn something else that Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” So it is not merely a matter of believing in Jesus and inviting Him somehow to come into our lives.  The embracing of Christ through faith is the beginning of a long process of losing our former lives—marked by sin, and all forms of pride, disobedience, and self-indulgence—and securing ourselves in that life in which we are no longer independent selves but Christ has taken over our inner “I” to conform it entirely to his own.

This is what St Paul is talking about in the epistle (Rom. 12:1-3).  The passage that corresponds to losing one’s self by taking up one’s cross to follow Jesus is expressed thus: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”  Then, corresponding to that inner conforming to Christ, which is the true finding of ourselves, he says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  In another place he says we have the mind of Christ, so we begin to see how the words of Jesus and the words of Paul together give us the message of the Gospel of our salvation.

When Paul says, “do not be conformed to this world,” the Greek word for “world” can also, and perhaps better, be translated “age,” but both together give a fuller picture.  The world in which we live and the present age in which we live, do not, in most respects, reflect the truth of the Gospel.  In fact, St John says that the whole world is under the power of the evil one (1Jn. 5:19).  So to truly find ourselves in Christ we are not to conform ourselves to the world and to the trends of the present time, but rather to the timeless word of truth that comes from the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Church.

Let us not be a lost generation, one that seeks to find itself only to lose it precisely because it seeks self and not the Lord.  Let us instead lose all that the world offers—that we may at length find ourselves in the Kingdom of Heaven—and for now choose, as the old song goes, to “cling to the old rugged Cross, and exchange it one day for a crown.”

Old News from a Summer Past

[While looking for some ancient article to recycle for the blog, I came across this little chronicle from our monastery newsletter in the summer of 2003.  The news is old, I was young (and still the abbot), but there are a couple of interesting stories I thought might be worth a chuckle or two.  So here it is.]

Though it’s quite pleasant at this writing, by time you receive this issue it will probably be the sweltering “dog days” of summer.  Poor dogs!  They’re always used in unflattering expressions.  Dog-tired, underdog, doggone, dog-face, dog’s chance, work-like-a-dog, smell-like-a-wet-dog, etc.  They’re not favorably referred to in the Bible either.  But I don’t want to press the point.  I could be accused of being overly dogmatic.

July has witnessed a couple of milestones in our rapidly-aging community.  Fr Abbot has made it halfway to ninety, and Fr Theodore has attained the coveted (or dreaded) half-century mark.  As their respective balding and graying processes advance, they’re praying more fervently the Offices for the deceased, securing friends on the other side, because, well, you just never know.

A story “Of Mice and Monks”: Fr Abbot has been having some exciting adventures with rodents and other denizens of the deep forest.  One day, he noticed that his car was running very roughly.  Checking under the hood, he startled a large rat who had been feasting on several choice wires, and who then indignantly bounded off.  (Fr Abbot later named the rat Saddam.)  Subsequently, a veritable army of mice descended upon the defenseless vehicle for their nocturnal raids and revelry, performing all sorts of rude acts upon the engine and threatening to inflict more costly damage.  So Fr Abbot had no other choice but to bring out the WMDs, that is, weapons of mouse destruction.  (Now, he doesn’t want to get letters from animal-rights activists.  If the little varmints would agree not to disable his electrical system, he’ll strike a deal.)  He set some yummy peanut butter for bait, but he soon discovered that Skippy is not the delight of rodents alone.  A large brown bear showed up one night, inhaled what little peanut butter was available, and tore the traps to shreds—mercifully doing no more than leaving a lot of dirt on the car and just a few scratches.  So the kindly middle-aged abbot, himself wishing to show mercy (and also not wishing to be mauled or maimed), decided to purchase one of those newfangled, non-peanut-butter-powered, ultrasonic rodent-ridder contraptions.  One of the first things the spiteful little buggers did was to chew through the wires, shorting out the device and wasting the abbot’s modest investment in non-cruelty to animals.  (You won’t see him on TV giving a testimonial to the effectiveness of those silly things!)  Ultimately Saddam was apprehended (without peanut butter), was tried (without a jury), convicted of capital crimes and, well, you can probably guess the rest.

But the story is not over yet.  One fine day, shortly thereafter, as Fr Abbot was walking down the mountain path, praying, he suddenly became frightfully aware that Mr. Bear was walking up the mountain path (preying?).  Was the bear preparing to take revenge for getting his nose stuck in the glue trap after having been lured by the peanut butter?  Having made a good act of contrition, he (the abbot) wondered what to do next.  The first thing he did was bless the approaching beast, saying, “Lord, please make the bear go away” (OK, so who can be eloquent at a time like that?).  Having decided it wouldn’t be a good idea to just sort of nonchalantly walk by, hoping the bear would be absorbed in his own thoughts and not notice him, the abbot (knowing that running was a bad idea, too) turned slowly, glided around a convenient bend, slunk into the woods (not too far, so his dead body could be easily found), and waited to meet his Maker—wondering why he had never thought of purchasing a .444 magnum to accompany him on his mountain hikes.  He began to hope that perhaps Mr. Bear might just keep on going up the path and not hear the abbot’s knees knocking in the manzanitas.  But after he waited a while, no bear came by.  Summoning up a smidgen of courage, he ventured out into the path to see if the brown hulk was still in the vicinity, but the Lord must have answered his prayer, because it was nowhere to be found.  Fr Abbot gingerly proceeded down the mountain, glancing over his shoulder every once in a while, and reached the relative safety of his cabin, grateful for having lived to tell the tale.

As for other interesting goings-on: we were quite dismayed and righteously indignant (as were many other citizens of this county) to learn that the governor was going to cut funding for the Ukiah Air Attack Base, which is absolutely necessary for fighting fires in this area (which is in severe danger of wildfires every summer).  To oppose this senseless move, which would have endangered many lives and much property, our good friend and air attack activist Julie Rogers spearheaded a successful campaign to restore funding for the base.  She unofficially dubbed Mt Tabor the “Prayer Attack Base,” since we were actively interceding for this cause.  To cap off the victory and to make sure that the base’s future success and safety would be shown to be a benefit from on high, the monks went to the Ukiah airport and blessed the three tanker planes employed in this most important work.

Finally, the number of people making retreats has been increasing, a good indicator that the hunger for the word of God, and for the silence in which to listen thereto, is growing.  We’re also grateful that the Lord has been sending us good people to help with various projects around here.  Seems like every time we turn around something is breaking, leaking, disintegrating, or otherwise “going the way of all flesh.”  With your prayers and support, we’ll keep it all from falling down before the Lord returns.  Have a blessed summer!

The Mystery of Faith

Today’s Gospel (Mt. 9:18-26) is about faith in Jesus’ power to heal and even to raise the dead, but it is about more than just believing.  Faith is, in this context, about a relationship with the Lord: our reaching out to Him in our need, and his reaching out to us to meet that need.  Blessed John Paul II has described faith as “contact with the mystery of God,” and we see something of this contact in the two events briefly described in the Gospel.

Before we look at this mystery of faith, however, let us notice something that relates to last Sunday’s Gospel.  There we saw, perhaps unexpectedly, that the possessed men came up to Jesus and worshiped Him, though in that case it was a forced worship based on the grudging acknowledgement of Jesus’ divinity.  The ruler mentioned in today’s Gospel (named Jairus by other evangelists), also came up to Jesus and worshiped Him.  The same Greek word is used in both cases, but with what a difference!  The demons in the possessed men hated the fact that they had to prostrate before a superior Power, but Jairus came to Jesus with faith and hope, with earnest supplications and a heart filled with love for God and trust in the power of Jesus even to raise the dead.  So let us realize that if our worship is not filled with faith and love it is no better than that of the demons!

Jairus’ worship and his prayer of faith was his reaching out to Jesus.  He begged the Lord: “Come, lay your hand on my daughter and she will live.” Jesus went to his house, dismissed those who did not have faith—and who hence ridiculed Jesus, thinking they knew better than He did—and then He took the girl by the hand and raised her from the dead!  So Jairus’ faith was richly rewarded, for he took the risk of coming into personal contact with the mystery of God manifested in Jesus Christ.

But something else had happened on the way to Jairus’ house.  We find another act of faith, another reaching out to the Lord, quite literally and physically this time.  A woman who had been suffering from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up to Jesus from behind, hoping to remain unnoticed, and she reached out to touch his garment, thinking to herself: “If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well.”

Jairus, a man enjoying a measure of wealth and prestige, came up publicly to Jesus and worshiped Him and begged Him for help.  This poor woman, on the other hand, was not only insignificant, but her affliction had rendered her ritually unclean, so she did not feel she was in a position to publicly approach Jesus.  She probably was afraid that the law-abiding people would drive her away and she would lose her opportunity for healing.  So she took the risk of faith, reaching out to Him anyway, trusting that she would not defile Him by her touch but rather that He would make her clean by the simple contact she sought to make.

The woman’s reasoning was correct and her faith was rewarded.  But the Lord didn’t allow her to remain hidden.  As the other evangelists recount, Jesus, without seeing her, knew what had happened, for He perceived that power had gone forth from Him.  The power of faith is so great that, even if we think the Lord is not paying attention to us, his grace is still poured out upon us when we come to Him believing He can help us!

So Jesus told the woman to take heart, for the virtue of her faith, in conjunction with the exercise of his power going forth, had healed her from her hitherto incurable illness.

Even though Jesus is not walking the earth today, we can still have “contact with the Mystery,” by reaching out to Him in faith.  We even have a certain advantage that those who saw Him in person did not.  Jairus asked Jesus to lay his hand on his daughter, and the afflicted woman touched his garment.  There’s much more for us to touch than a garment: Jesus Himself, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, is given to us in Holy Communion.  He doesn’t come only into our homes; He comes into our bodies and souls.  We don’t only touch Him; He abides in us and we in Him.

So we should take heart; our faith in Christ in the Holy Eucharist will heal and save us.  We still fall down before Him in worship, and we still reach out to him in our prayers for our needs and the needs of our loved ones.  But an intimacy is available to us that was not available to those we read about in the Gospel who sought this or that favor from Him.  We receive the fullness of his life and love through his indwelling presence.  Thus He makes all things new and prepares us for the everlasting communion with God in the heavenly Kingdom.

So let us reach out in faith to Him whose hand is always extended to us, to Him whose power is always coming forth to meet our needs of body and soul.  And let us never forget that the greatest thing He does for us He does every day: entering our hearts in the great Mystery of faith which is the most Holy Eucharist.

Dry (Part 2)

Psalm 29(30) is a good little summary of the experience of the spiritual life and its occasional periods of dryness and then restoration to joy in God’s grace.  Here I will present the text, with some commentary.

It begins after the time of trial is over, so on the whole it is a psalm of thanksgiving.  “I will praise you, Lord, you have rescued me and have not let my enemies rejoice over me.”  As we need to do often in the psalms, we will here consider our “enemies” to be spiritual ones: either the demons or our own inner disorder and sin (or both)—whatever the affliction might be that makes us gradually (or not so gradually) fall away from God.

“O Lord, I cried to you for help, and you, my God, have healed me.  O Lord, you have raised my soul from the dead, restored me to life from those who sink into the grave.”  The memory of his affliction as a disease that needed healing and then as death that needed resurrection can perhaps be seen as two levels of this spiritual malaise.  Dryness will always feel like a sort of spiritual sickness, but let us not ignore the symptoms so long that it brings us to the point of spiritual death!  Even though all things are possible with God, healing is easier to perform than resurrection, not so much on his part but on ours.  The damage is deeper and the recovery longer if we do not turn to Him at the first sign that something is amiss.

After a bit more unrestrained praise—“Sing psalms to the Lord, you who love him; give thanks to his holy name”—the psalmist begins to impart some wisdom on the subject of spiritual dryness: “His anger lasts a moment; his favor all through life.  At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn” (I’m sure you immediately recognized where I got the title for my first book!).  It is common for the psalmists to attribute any unpleasant or tragic event to the “anger” of God.  God is the absolute Sovereign of the Universe, so everything that happens is in some way under his control.  So if something bad happens to me, it must be that God is angry.

God’s “anger,” however, is only remotely analogous to human anger.  He doesn’t get all emotional or red in the face or say things He will later regret. The “wrath of God” is simply the inevitable result of our not acting according to the way we were made; things just go terribly wrong when something is used for a purpose other than that for which it was designed.  God doesn’t have to directly smite us for our sin (though He can if He sees that is the only thing that will get us to wake up and repent).  Ordinarily, we experience within our own bodies and souls the penalty which wrongdoing, by its very nature, inflicts (see, for example, Rom. 1:18-32).  God “gives us up” to the consequences of our choices if we do not seek his mercy and change our lives.

The psalmist would reason thus: since God is good by nature, I or someone or something else must have provoked his righteous wrath.  The Old Testament authors don’t tiptoe around such mysteries or try to sugar-coat them or even say they aren’t so.  They simply accept reality as it is (or at least as it appears to be) and try to do whatever it takes to be restored to God’s favor.

They do, however, give God a lot of credit for being better to us than we deserve.  Despite our sins and all the evil in the world, “His anger lasts a moment; his favor all through life.”  So if we are really trying to seek and to serve God, it is likely that our dry spells will be short-lived.  “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), so we ordinarily should be able to enjoy the blessings of his loving kindness.  A tearful night is supplanted by a joyful dawn, for “his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning” (Lam. 3:22-23).

Now we come to the crux of the matter, the dynamics of dryness: the complacency, the time of trial, the turning back to God, and the restoration, all in a few verses.  “I said to myself in my good fortune: ‘Nothing will ever disturb me.’  Your favor had set me on a mountain fastness.  Then you hid your face and I was put to confusion. To you, Lord, I cried, to my God I made appeal… The Lord listened and had pity. The Lord came to my help.  For me you have changed my mourning into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and girded me with joy…” (emphasis added: that is the concise articulation of the experience of spiritual dryness).

So, when things are going well, we might think they will always go well: “In the day of prosperity, adversity is forgotten” (Sir. 11:25).  But all God has to do is “hide his face,” that is, withdraw his grace somewhat, and we are put to confusion, our peace departs and even our hope is shattered: “In the day of adversity, prosperity is not remembered” (ibid.).  The only solution: cry out to the Lord in heartfelt prayer.  I suppose you can do what the psalmist did, and try to persuade God that it really is in his best interests to help you: “What profit would my death be, my going to the grave?  Can dust give you praise or proclaim your truth?”  Hey, it worked for him, as we see from the rest of the psalm!  But usually it is better simply to put our trust in the Lord and submit ourselves to his holy will, repenting of whatever may be our fault in the matter and renewing our longing to be united to God in peace and joy.

The psalm closes with a look towards a blessed future: “So my soul sings psalms to you unceasingly; O Lord my God, I will thank you forever.”  Even if we might guess that there will still be some adversity in our path down the line, it is good to keep the spirit of gratitude and praise, for these will go a long way toward protecting us from much that can cause dryness in the first place.

Finally, a couple points to remember.  God is sovereign and free; we have to allow Him to be God in our lives and to do with us what He sees is best.  He is not at our beck and call; we are at his.  Therefore we shouldn’t rebel against what God is doing (or apparently not doing) in our lives, for when we are spiritually dry, He is doing something.  We just can’t feel it, but we modern Americans live too much by feeling, anyway. We need to live more by faith!  If it seems like God has left us for the time being, then we must first accept from the heart the state in which we find ourselves, but begin to praise Him in anticipation of his return!  Then the Lord will know that we are not merely happy when feeling good, and unhappy when feeling down, but rather that we choose to give Him thanks and praise—even when that seems not to be the most desirable or even reasonable thing to do.  That is living by faith, living by hope, and even living by love, for love is a matter of willing and doing, not merely feeling (see Jn. 14:21-24).

None of this is easy to do, especially when the Lord “hides his face” and we are therefore “put to confusion.”  But He never said it was going to be easy; in fact, He said it was going to be hard (see Mt. 7:13-14).  So, whenever our souls feel like scorched earth, we have first to perform an examination of conscience, to see if the fault lies in ourselves, or at least if we have been taking the Lord’s blessings for granted, and then we cry out for a taste of the Living Water the Lord has promised: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink” (Jn. 7:37).  Then, like the psalmist, we will rejoice once again, knowing that “his anger lasts a moment; his favor all through life.”  And having endured with patience and trust the time of drought, we will once again rejoice in the Lord: “He changes the desert into streams, thirsty ground into springs of water.  There he settles the hungry… They sow fields and plant their vines; these yield crops for the harvest.  He blesses them… He raises the needy from distress… Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the love of the Lord” (Ps. 106/107).

Dry (Part 1)

[I just wrote this for our monastery newsletter’s summer issue, but you get to see it first!]

Last summer I wrote about Hell, which I thought was appropriate, considering the summer’s heat.  I don’t know what your summers are like, but here in Northern California they are not only hot but very dry, so I thought I’d write about spiritual dryness this time around.

Almost everyone who is serious about the spiritual life will experience “dry” periods from time to time.  I’ve sometimes wondered why we call it that.  When we are experiencing manifest blessings, we never say we are spiritually moist, so why do we say we are spiritually dry when things take a turn for the worse?

I guess it has to do with a nature metaphor.  Deserts are dry and mostly barren; lush gardens are well-watered and hence fruitful.  Just about everything needs water to live, so if we are spiritually “dehydrated,” we are fading fast.  It’s true that too much water can be quite unwelcome, as many people in this country have discovered earlier this year, but that’s just too much of a good thing.  Water itself is always necessary and good.  Parched land is never good.  The psalmist laments that he is like a “dry, weary land without water” (62/63), and he says so precisely in the context of his relationship with God.  Again, he says, “Like a parched land, my soul thirsts for You” (142/143).

Why is it that we get spiritually dry?  Is it just a matter of regular cycles of the inner life, like wet and dry seasons in various regions of the world?  Perhaps it is, to some extent, but if that were the only reason it would seem to leave much unexplained, and then this article would have to end right about now.

From what I’ve heard and read and experienced, there seem to be several more reasons, not all of which are our own fault, though some are.  So we can take some consolation in the fact that our dry times might actually be something that God is deliberately doing in our souls for his own good reasons.  Let’s start here, then, and try to learn something of his mysterious purposes.

It seems that there is one main reason for a God-initiated spiritual drought, aside from the “negative” reason of prodding us to clean up our acts.  Drying out our souls is a way of his getting our attention, but for a specific purpose: to increase our longing for Him.  There’s a tendency among Christians, even among relatively serious ones, to get somewhat complacent in the spiritual life. This isn’t something we ordinarily choose to do.  It just sort of happens to us, imperceptibly, so it’s not always our fault—unless we notice it and then choose to do nothing about it.

If we have adopted a certain rule or program for spiritual life—prayer, Sacraments, Scripture and meditation, etc—and it seems to “work” for us, we may think we can simply follow this rule without alteration or advance.  God is pleased with us (we assume) and we are pleased with God, and so we more or less coast toward the Kingdom of Heaven.

Somehow, though, this comfortable program just doesn’t bear the maximum fruit God intends. So if we are not exerting ourselves sufficiently to grow more, to enter more deeply and consciously into the mysteries of God, He is going to have to give us a little wake-up call.  Sometimes this takes the form of a bout of spiritual dryness.

One of the dangers of complacency is that we can become satisfied with our relationship to God, with our level of spiritual attainment, and then mistakenly begin to think (even if rather inarticulately) that we have already come to know and experience God sufficiently in this life so as not to have to “strain forward” to grow and mature.  Many years ago, I was taken aback when one of our novices declared that he was quite satisfied with his prayer life. “You’re satisfied?” I thought to myself. I then made a mental note that this one might not persevere in his monastic vocation.  He didn’t.

So if we are satisfied with our prayer life, God may have to inject a bit of dissatisfaction into it—not to discourage us, but to disabuse us of our illusion that we can remain indefinitely on our current spiritual plateau.  As Adrienne von Speyr was wont to say, God is the “ever-greater Reality,” who is always way beyond anything we have hitherto come to learn or experience of Him.  And because He loves us, He wants continually to show us more, lead us further, open us more fully and, yes, stretch us perhaps just a little more painfully so as to expand our capacity for knowing and loving Him.  The seed has to fall to the earth and die, a man has to deny himself and take up his cross: these are images of the shattering of complacency, for which we are sometimes cast into the desert of spiritual aridity.

Now dryness itself isn’t the answer to one’s need to go deeper into God; it just makes us aware of the need.  It is supposed to be a catalyst for growth, a means to make us thirsty for God again if we are more or less self-satisfied.  As the saying goes, we never miss the water till the well runs dry.  So when God permits this to happen, it is a call for us to seek the Beloved more ardently, to pray more fervently, search the Scriptures more diligently, and perhaps repent more sincerely and thoroughly.  We have to do everything in our power to dispose ourselves to a renewed experience of the grace of God, and then wait, patiently but vigilantly, for his return, so that our dried-up souls once again can be like a watered garden. “On this, your own land, O God, thou sendest rain abundantly; all parched it lies, and thou dost bring it relief” (Ps. 67/68, Knox translation).

So then, let us not assume that if we are in dry spell God has abandoned us or even is working against us.  Remember this prophecy of Jeremiah: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for woe, to give you a future and a hope.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (29:11-13).

There are some ways, however, in which our dryness is our own darn fault, the result of our failure to do God’s will.  In such cases, God has to use the dryness not primarily as a means of inviting us deeper into his love and life, but rather as a therapeutic or disciplinary means to get us back on the right track again.  Much of what is in the following three points on this subject I learned many years ago at a conference in Southern California, and I hope you will find something here to help.

The first reason for dryness that may be our fault is simply this: rebellion or disobedience.  We have to examine our consciences on this, in our relationships both to God and to other people.  Rebellion and disobedience—especially due to pride, which usually underlies these sins—go back to the primordial sin, the refusal of our first parents to obey God.  This destroyed their relationship with Him, and they could no longer walk with Him in the lush gardens of Paradise in the cool of the day.  Instead they merited the dry, unyielding ground that produced thorns and thistles, and their former joy that proceeded from a right relationship with God was turned into the misery of culpable alienation.  Likewise, we can’t expect grace to flow freely within us if we are in a state of spiritual rebellion.  All we can expect then are the thorns and thistles our dry and barren souls will produce.  If we are angry at God, if we refuse to accept the crosses He may send or permit, or if we are in any way placing ourselves in an “adversarial” relationship to God, we must humble ourselves, repent, and submit to God’s superior wisdom, trusting that He knows what He is doing in our lives.

The next element is related to the first: unconfessed sin.  It’s one thing to be currently in a state of rebellion, and another to have something from the past (perhaps even the relatively recent past) hanging over us and hindering our communion with the Lord.  We have to see if there is any unforgiveness, any grudges, uncorrected bad habits, attitudes or faults that are presenting serious obstacles to divine grace.  In Psalm 31(32), we read this: “Happy the man whose offense is forgiven, whose sin is remitted… I kept it secret and my frame was wasted.  I groaned all day long, for night and day your hand was heavy upon me.  Indeed, my strength was dried up as by the summer’s heat…”  The psalmists sure knew a lot about spiritual dryness!  So, if you are in a dry time, maybe all you need is a good confession.  Think and pray about it; it can’t hurt and it can actually help very much.  The psalmist continues: “But now I have acknowledged my sins; my guilt I did not hide. I said: ‘I will confess my offense to the Lord.’  And you, Lord, have forgiven the guilt of my sin… Many sorrows has the wicked, but he who trusts in the Lord, loving mercy surrounds him.  Rejoice, rejoice in the Lord…”

We come now to the third possibility for self-inflicted spiritual dryness, and this is something we might not think of right away: acting on the last word God spoke.  We have to discover if there is any “unfinished business” between ourselves and God.  If we don’t keep his word, He will not tell us anything new until we obey his previous instructions. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6:46).  Have we made any promises to God that we have failed to keep?  Have we received some guidance in prayer or through the Scriptures or spiritual direction that we have ignored or refused to put into practice?

There are a couple of points related to this one as well: Is there any inordinate desire in our heart, something that—in effect—we desire more than God or the accomplishment of his will?  Or is there anything we already have of which we are jealous or to which we are attached, and therefore that we’re afraid may be taken from us?  Such things will keep God from coming close to us, and we will end up in spiritual dryness and even darkness.  We need to trust the Lord and surrender without reserve to his will.  Then He will reveal Himself more fully, and it will be easier for us to see the truth: that nothing in this world is valuable enough to be preferred to God, and that He knows what makes for true happiness, so we should let Him arrange everything toward that end.

To be continued…

Go, and Don’t Come Back Again!

“You are damned,” the demon said, addressing the exorcist… “I go away, but… you and your companions, you are going to be persecuted for life!” (from The Rite, by Matt Baglio).  Those words of a demon that was cast out from a woman a few years ago are significant for our understanding of spiritual warfare.  There are two important points brought up here.  First, the demon says: “I go away,” which means that demons can indeed be cast out, and we should be encouraged by that.  In its pride, the demon makes it look like it chose to go away, but the account of the exorcism makes it clear that it was forced to depart.  Second, the demon said that it would still persecute the exorcist, and this should be a sober reminder that even though the demons can be defeated, they have to be repeatedly defeated, because they will always be on the prowl, as St Peter says (1Peter 5:8), looking for some way to devour souls.

We have in today’s Gospel (Mt. 8:28 – 9:1) a very brief account of Jesus casting out the demons from two possessed men.  The other evangelists give more details, so it may help to refer to them to get the whole story.  All that St Matthew says about the demoniacs is that they lived in a cemetery and were “exceedingly fierce,” but St Mark, who mentions only one possessed man, says that he was able to break the chains with which he was bound, and that he cried aloud, gashing himself with stones.  St Luke adds that he wore no clothes, that is, he was reduced to the level of an animal, the demon having stripped him of his human dignity.

St Mark adds an interesting detail.  He says that when the possessed man came up to Jesus, he worshipped Him (or, at the very least, prostrated himself before Him), before he shouted at the Lord to leave him alone.  If the demons hate and despise the Lord, why would they worship Him?  Well, it is certainly not their choice to do so!  They are forced to do so by the sheer weight of the truth that they are creatures and God is their Creator.

This was clearly brought out in the exorcism that I mentioned at the beginning.  Several saints were sent from Heaven to assist at the exorcism, and since the demon could see them, the possessed woman saw them as well, and the demon cursed and blasphemed them through her.  The Mother of God was there, as were St Gemma Galgani, who, during her short life had been severely attacked by the devil but emerged victorious, and also Blessed John Paul II and Blessed Mother Teresa.  The exorcist commanded the demon, in the name of Jesus Christ and in the name of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, to say: “Eternal Father, You are my Creator and I adore You!”

The demon went ballistic, of course, and cursed and refused to acknowledge the greater power of God, and it threw the woman into convulsions.  But in the end, the intercession of the saints and the power of the name of Jesus weakened the demon to the point that it choked out the words, and that is when it left, cursing and threatening the exorcist with a lifetime of persecution.

So this is what was happening in the Gospel when we are told that the possessed man worshipped Jesus when he first came up to Him.  The sheer power of Jesus’ divinity, even before Jesus ordered the demons to go, forced them to fall prostrate before Him.  They still tried to verbally assault him before they had to leave, though: “What have you to do with us, O Son of God?  Have you come here to torment us before the time?”

As a little aside, this whole episode should indicate to us the importance of accepting the word of God in its entirety and not selecting a few congenial passages and leaving out the rest.  In the epistle for today (Rom. 10:1-10), St Paul says that we are saved if we believe in Jesus in our hearts and confess Him with our lips.  He says many other things as well, but some people latch on to this one passage and say: “Hey, I’m saved, because I believe in Jesus and confess Him with my words!”  Well, St James reminds us (2: 17-19) that even the demons believe, but that wasn’t enough to save them.  And here in the Gospel the demons are confessing Jesus to be the Son of God, and even worshipping Him, but they still have to spend eternity in Hell.  Their forced acknowledgement of the Lord’s superior dignity and power is not the worship that is pleasing to God.  So we have to remember, as Jesus said (Mt. 7:21), that it is only those who do the will of the Father who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and this is the one thing the demons have always refused to do.

Jesus did make one concession to the demons’ demands, as a sort of symbolic gesture.  Since they were unclean spirits, He sent them, at their request, into unclean animals, the herd of swine.  As it turned out, the demons were far more unclean than the pigs, and the pigs asserted their own dignity by refusing to host the demons, since the swine were quite noble in comparison, and they thwarted the demons’ designs by rushing to their own deaths so the demons had to go back to Hell.  Perhaps Jesus had this in mind all the time.  It was a greater humiliation for the demons to be snubbed by a bunch of pigs than to be overpowered by the Almighty God.  In any case, a single word from Jesus—“Go”—was enough to send them away.

This was a great victory, but we know that it was not the end of the devil’s machinations, and we have to learn a lesson from this.  Even when the devil dared to attack Jesus personally when He was fasting in the desert, and Jesus ordered it to leave,  St Luke notes rather ominously that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (4:13).  So the devil comes back even after he is sent away.  I’ve said in the past that the devil has only one virtue, and that is perseverance.  He is determined to make us fall, to break us, to deceive and ultimately to destroy us, so that our immortal souls will end up in his miserable and horrifying domain forever, and he will harass us relentlessly until the verdict on our eternal destiny is finally pronounced.

After all, what else do the demons have to do?  They’re all stuck in the burning sulfur pits forever, so they’re not going to admit failure just because they lose a few rounds.  They are obsessed with dragging as many souls into their own tormented eternity as possible.  One might think, looking at the situation in much of the world today, that the devil ought to be to content with the numerous souls he has already ensnared, and with each year’s dramatic increase when the census of Hell is taken.  But I read recently that the devil is always angry and frustrated, because even though he evidently has been given a fair amount of freedom to wreak havoc in this world, God never permits him to do everything that he wants to do.  If the devil had his way, the whole world would be nothing but a stinking, smoldering wasteland, populated with the few maddened and diseased wretches that haven’t yet fallen into the burning caverns of the eternal netherworld.  And the devil is enraged with every soul who is saved by the grace and mercy of the Lord, every soul who sees through the demonic deceptions and freely chooses the way of the Gospel, the way of the Cross.

So what shall we do, to make sure we are on the winning side forever?  We want to be so filled with the grace and authority of Christ that we too can say to the demons, “Go,” and they go.  Well, we have to start with what we heard in the epistle today: Believe in Jesus from the heart, and confess with our lips that He is Lord, that He has died for our sins and is risen from the dead.  But then we have to go the rest of the way—because up to this point the demons can still say: “Yeah, we believe too, and we also can say that He is the Son of God and all the other lip-service you fools are accustomed to offer.”  So the final element is that we have to do the will of the Father.  The demons have no counterpart to this; they cannot say that they do it too, for they hate and curse and blaspheme the will of the Father.  It is because they rejected it untold ages ago that they are where they are now, and they blame God for all their torments.  And now they spend all their energy trying to get us to reject the Father’s will, deceiving us with what they call freedom and pleasure and power, so that we will end up in flaming straightjackets and forever under their dreadful domination.

So we have to make use of all that God places at our disposal to fight the good fight, to unmask evil and see it for what it is, and to command it to leave our lives and our world, so that, as prophesied in the Book of Revelation, the kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of God and of his Christ, who shall reign forever and ever (see 11:15).

We know from the Bible and from the whole of Christian Tradition—as well as from what is revealed in exorcisms to this very day—what routs the demons: the word of God, the power of the name of Jesus and the grace of the Holy Eucharist, the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and of the saints and angels, the power of sacramentals like holy water and blessed medals and icons.  But these are not meant to be employed only when we are in direct confrontation with the powers of darkness.  They are supposed to be our way of life.  Go to confession regularly, receive the Body and Blood of Christ, read the Scriptures, be devoted to Our Lady and the saints, rely on your guardian angel(s), wear blessed medals, etc—all the time.  This is what it means, as St Paul says, to live in Christ, to be rooted in Him and built up in Him and established in the Faith (see Col. 2:6).

Exorcists will tell you that the purpose of casting out demons is not simply to rid persons of that evil presence.  It is also an exhortation for them to live a profound prayer and sacramental life, to do the will of the Father and to reject the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  I have read testimonies concerning people who went in for exorcisms just to be rid of the evil spirits, but then did not bother to turn their lives wholly over to God.  Of course, the evil spirits then returned, as the Lord once prophesied, and the last state was worse than the first.  Remember, when the devil is cast out, he awaits an opportune time, looks for some vulnerability created by our laxity or sin, and then he returns with a vengeance.

It has been said that that best exorcism is confession and Communion, along with a penitential and prayerful lifestyle.  The devil has no way to enter a soul that is constantly turned toward God in faith and love, in the consistent effort always to deny oneself for the sake of doing the will of the Father.

May our names not be found on the census of Hell but rather in the Book of Life of the Lamb of God.  By his grace and the support of his saints and angels—and all that his Church provides for us—we shall have no fear in the valley of the shadow of death but will rejoice in sharing the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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