Saturday, April 12, 2014

Welcome the Springtime!

As we in the Catholic Church - Eastern, Oriental, and Western - conclude the Lenten season and enter into Great and Holy Week, I'd like to reflect for a moment on a central theme of this time of year: repentance. This theme has been weighing on me thanks to some recent conversations I've had, as well as some reading I've been doing and lectures I've been listening to.

"Repentance." For me that word, wrongly, evokes a number of negative connotations: guilt, depression, despair, shame, worthlessness, etc., etc., etc. Judging from recent conversations that I've had with other Catholics, it seems that I am not alone in the evocations that I experience whenever I hear that word. The difference? I understand that the emotional reaction that I have to that word reflects an improper understanding of the word itself. Sadly, however, there are many people who simply have no understanding of what "repentance" actually means. To them it means simply feeling of guilty, inadequate, and shame over their sins. But, as we know, this is not the true meaning of repentance.

But let me take a step back for a moment. In the Gospels both Jesus and St. John the Baptist tell us to repent. They call us to repentance because, as they say, the kingdom of God is in our midst. Some translations have it as the kingdom of God is "within" us. I think a good balance of both translations is in order. As a worshipping community, whether Catholic or Orthodox, the kingdom of God is certainly in our midst, particularly when we celebrate the Eucharist, but certainly in all of our actions as a community. However, as the great mystics of the East and West all point out, the kingdom is also within us, because Christ dwells in us. If you are seeking the kingdom of God, therefore, it is necessary to turn both to the worshipping community and within oneself. It is not possible to be a "solo-Christian." We need our brothers and sisters in Christ, because it is with them that we encounter God's kingdom in a very real way. But similarly we also need to enter within.

The problem of entering within, similar to entering a community, is that we encounter more than Christ there. We also encounter our own fallenness. Just as when we enter any community it become quickly apparent that we are a fallen people, so also when one enters one's own heart it becomes soon apparent that I am a fallen person. We seek Christ within. We seek His kingdom within. We seek His light within. But what we encounter is our personal demons and the kingdom of darkness. St. Teresa of Avila divides the "inner mansion" into rooms, some of those rooms are filled with snakes and reptiles, others with angels. St. Makarius of Egypt (or is it Evagrius of Pontus???) also speaks of the reptiles one encounters within one's heart. And so we have light blending with darkness. Even though we see the light within, so often we are overcome by the shadows within. It's as if one wakes up on a misty or foggy morning. We can see the light, but the density of the fog prevents us from seeing clearly.

As a Christian people we know that we have a certain goal in life. The old Baltimore Catechism sums it up something like this: "The goal of the Christian life is to love and serve God in this life that we might enjoy Him in the life to come." While this is certainly a good enough summary, for me personally it seems rather cold. I prefer St. Seraphim of Sarov's wording of our common goal: "The aim of the Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit." Later in the conversation in which St. Seraphim made that definition, he provides an example of what the goal looks like: he is transformed into fire and light! The aim of the Christian life, therefore, is to live in the light, to rejoice in and reflect that light in this world, and to rest in that light in the world to come!

Encountering the darkness within us, therefore, can be discouraging. We long for the Light. We love the Light. We want nothing more than to bathe in the Light of Life, to be fully alive in Christ. And yet, when we enter within - whether within a community or within ourselves - we find shadows mingled with the Light. Here is where we encounter that sense of sorrow and perhaps even guilt and shame over our own sinfulness.

But that is not the end of the story. The darkness we encounter is not permanent, unless we allow it to be. And now enters the true meaning of repentance. Repentance, according to St. John Climacus, is not the mother of despair, but the daughter of hope! Why do we repent of the darkness within? We repent because in Christ we have hope that the light of Christ, the fire and light of the Holy Spirit, will prevail over the darkness. Through His Resurrection Christ raises us to new life; through His Ascension He introduces us into the Kingdom; and through the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fire and light descend in our midst and within us to cast out all shadows and to inflame us with new life!

This winter was a particularly hard winter in many areas of the U.S. Places that don't normally see any snow saw huge amounts of it. Arctic cold descended upon us time after time after time. It seemed as though the winter would never end. Darkness seemed to reign over our world because there were always clouds and heavy snow blocking the light of the Sun. I am one who loves winter. I love snow. I love cold weather. I love cloudy days (my poor Irish skin cannot handle sunlight for too long). But even I was happy to see this winter go. I was happy to welcome warmer weather and more sunlight. I was happy to welcome the new life that is now budding forth as I write this post.

In the Byzantine tradition Great Lent is referred to as a "springtime." Why? Because spring means new life bursting forth. It means more daylight. It means warmer weather. It means the joyfulness of the birds singing. It means color bursting forth in the budding trees and blooming flowers. It means movement and freedom after the frozen rigidity of the winter. This is what repentance is supposed to be. We are called to turn from ("repentance" comes from the Greek word "metanoia" which means to "change direction" or to "turn around") the darkness and coldness of our fallen humanity, of our sinfulness, and to turn toward the warmth and light offered us in Christ. This is why the Pascal season culminates in Pentecost! The warmth and light of the Holy Spirit descend upon us. Repentance, therefore, isn't gloom over our sinfulness. Rather, repentance is joy. It is embracing this new Springtime. It means movement, light, dancing, color, music. To repent is to turn from death and embrace life!

So as we enter into the Great and Holy Week, we should redouble our efforts of repentance. The winter  of our sinfulness is casting one last storm, but the joy of the Resurrection follows. Let's weather the storm keep our eyes fixed on the Resurrection. May heaven consume us!

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hope

Sometimes it seems that maintaining hope in the face of my own sinfulness is impossible. With each fall it is easy to become discouraged. And fall after fall the discouragement grows. "How can God pardon so many offenses?" we might often ask ourselves. I know I ask this very frequently. But, as always, the saints have nothing but words of hope for us.

Now, you'll have to forgive me, but I don't know where or who originated the following quotes, but nonetheless they provide a great source of hope. I remember reading or hearing a quote from one Eastern saint that was along the lines of "God desires to give us mercy more than we desire to receive it." Think of that. No matter how much we may desire God's mercy, He desires to give it to us even more! He stands ready to forgive us, even before we are ready to be forgiven.

I believe I've heard once as well that there is more mercy in God than there are sins in us. No matter how much we sin, there is always more mercy awaiting us. We simply have to ask for it, and we have to be willing to receive it; this implies that we must always be willing to change our lives where our lives need changing. The mercy is there, but we have to be willing to cooperate with God's mercy.

One last quote that has impacted me strongly lately comes from a Western saint, St. Alphonsus Liguori. It was the writings of St. Alphonsus that originally got me into reading the writings of the saints. His words are always so simple and to the point, and yet they are always so profound. In meditating on the reasons for our hope, St. Alphonsus has this to say: 

"God willed that we should be so inseparably united to Jesus Christ that He cannot be loved except that we  be loved with Him; nor can we be hated except that He be hated with us. But now Jesus cannot be hated (by the Father); therefore, we shall be loved as long as we remain united to Him by love."

Have you ever considered this; that the Father has tied his love for us so closely to His love for His Son that He cannot love the Son without also loving us! Nor can he hate us without also hating the Son! Talk about a personal "catch 22." But the Father would have it no other way.

So don't let personal sinfulness get in the way of your hope in God. God has bound His love for us with His love for His Son. And just as He raised His Son from physical death, He will raise us too from the spiritual death of our sinfulness. May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Great Lent!!!

Please forgive my absence. I've been struggling through a spiritual dry-spell lately. I've had little to no inspiration; all spiritual reading and prayer have given little consolation; and I feel as though all zeal has been sucked from my soul. Just struggling to live day-to-day and to maintain something of a spiritual life has require a great deal of effort from me. I'm sure you all know how that goes.

However, as I woke up this morning it dawned on me; today is Ash Wednesday in the Roman tradition. Monday marked the beginning of the Great Fast for Catholics of the Byzantine and Maronite (and I presume the other Oriental Catholic) traditions. Great and Holy Lent is upon us! I don't know how I missed this. This great and holy season just sort of snuck up on me.

I've always loved Lent. For me it has always been a time to refocus my heart, mind, and energies on what matters most; i.e. my relationship with God the Trinity. So often I see folks get caught up in the rules of fasting and abstinence. I remember a Greek Orthodox friend of mine making a somewhat snarky comment about the ease of the fasting rules for Roman Catholics. I've seen other Catholics bemoan the relaxing of the fasting rules for their traditions (Roman, Maronite, whatever). I've often also gotten the feeling that friends of mine were looking critically over my shoulder to ensure that I was maintaining the fast. To me this all seems to miss the point of the season.

Fasting is important, don't get me wrong. We should definitely follow the rules for fasting according to our particular tradition to the best of our abilities. That last bit is the most important part; to the best of our abilities. Not everyone has the strength to pull off great feats of fasting. One wise move that the Melkites made several years ago was to establish norms for "beginner," "intermediate," and "advanced" fasting (although I don't believe they used that language). Essentially they established minimum norms while at the same time affirming their traditional fast and holding that up as a goal to work toward. Basically they said, "Here's what our norms are. Do what you can. Push yourself, but don't injure yourself."

But the whole point of fasting is not that we are not permitted to eat certain foods, or until a certain time of day, or what have you. The point of fasting is that we take our minds off of even some of our most basic physical necessities in order to refocus on the more important spiritual necessities, the "one thing needful" so to speak. Food is good (VERY good in my opinion), but it cannot be allowed to dominate our lives. We need to be reminded that God is our heavenly Father and that He does and will provide for even the most basic and mundane needs of our bodies while at the same time supplying the needs of our souls, our innermost person. The Great Fast, Lent, is a time to refocus on our relationship with God by reaffirming our complete and utter dependence upon Him. In a sense Lent is about humbling ourselves enough to admit our poverty without Him. We have nothing apart from God.

That is actually one of the reasons why repentance is meant to be a joyful event, not a guilt-trip. This morning, as I was reading one of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse, I was reminded that repentance is meant to be joyful. Why? Because of what precedes repentance. Before we repent, we recognize that something is disordered within us and around us. We recognize that we have done wrong. We have injured ourselves and our neighbors. We recognize that we deserve punishment. But where do we turn? What hope do we have? If you watch the people of the world it is interesting and sad to see where they go: drugs, alcohol, sex, cutting, food, etc. Even a disordered focus on building a utopia here and now is a result of the recognition that something is not right. But we know from experience that any attempt for man to build utopia of his own power and will fails.

Repentance is about the recognition that something is wrong, but then seeing that God, through the incarnation, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and glorification of His Son, has offered us shelter from the evil around us. We just need to embrace Him. We need to come under the shadow of His wings, a shadow cast by the Cross, a Cross that gives us hope.

That's what repentance is all about. So whether your Church has strict fasting laws, relaxed fasting laws, or provides norms for both doesn't really matter. What matters primarily is the interior disposition as we follow the rules for the Great Fast. Are we looking over our shoulders to see what others are doing? Or are we looking within in order to untangle ourselves with the help of God's grace from the snares of the world, the flesh and the devil? Are we looking ahead to the open arms of our almighty Father in order to run into His embrace? May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Will It

As I was driving out to the administration office of the company I'm working with, I was reminded of a conversation between St. Thomas Aquinas and an anonymous person. It seems the person, curious about what it took to lead a holy life, went up to St. Thomas and asked him, "What must I do to become a saint?" St. Thomas wisely answered, "You must will it."

This conversation has weighed on my mind since I was very young. "You must will it." If you want to be a saint you must will it. As I was driving it suddenly dawned on me how few of us actually will to become saints, not because we don't earnestly desire sainthood, but because we don't believe we can actually achieve it.

It never ceases to amaze me how God can communicate great spiritual insight to us even when we're not exactly seeking it. This insight came to me through some motivational reading that I've been doing lately. In his book, Think & Grow Rich, author Napoleon Hill is very clear in demonstrating that an act of the will is not merely an act that is limited to the cognitive arena. An act of the will doesn't simply take place in our head. We don't will something by thinking it. An act of the will involves the entire person; their spirit, soul, mind, heart, emotion, and body. An act of the will starts as a desire, and, through faith, moves on to planning in order to accomplish one's goal. After planning a definite decision is made to attain the goal no matter the cost, and then we persist in our efforts to accomplish that goal in spite of any/all opposition.

I know for me personally there is certainly the strong desire to become a saint. But that desire is stopped short in its tracks because I've been told over and over that there are few people who actually become saints! We are not told that it is, indeed, possible for us to become saints. We are told, almost with the hint that we shouldn't bother trying, that there are few people who actually attain sainthood. How sad that we are told this, because after awhile we start telling ourselves that same thing. "Oh, I'll never be a saint. So I'll just do the best I can and hope I make it into heaven." Our will-to-sainthood is stopped short in its tracks. But the saints tell us the complete opposite!

The saints tell us that it is, indeed, possible for us to become saints; so long as we are willing to pay the price for sanctity. We must, first, desire sainthood. Then we must have faith that we can attain sainthood. We must look at our goal and make the necessary plans to achieve that goal. We must then make the definite decision to attain that goal no matter the cost, and we must persist in our efforts even in the face of opposition and ridicule.

Can you think of a single saint who didn't put these steps into action? Every saint I've ever read about was so focused on their goal (i.e. Christ) that nothing else mattered to them but living for Christ. Every saint endured ridicule, opposition, persecution, and many even death to attain that goal. What are you willing to endure? What am I willing to endure.

Now, I don't mean to sound as if we can become saints of our own efforts. This is most certain not true. But the fact of the matter is that God the Trinity has given us all the tools necessary to become saints. It is up to us to use those tools. It is up to us to live our lives consistent with the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. It is up to us to frequent the Sacraments (especially Confession and Communion). It is up to us to pray daily. And it is up to us to learn from the host of saints that have gone before us, and from those saints that we encounter around us. God has given us all the tools, do we make use of them?

Another thing that I think we need to start doing is changing our thoughts on the matter. We need to start telling ourselves that we can become saints. We can because God has made it possible through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that to deny our ability to become saints is all but tantamount to denying the saving action of God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

It is amazing how repeating this positive thought helps one to focus and put in the necessary effort to achieve one's goal. You can do it. Imagine a father stretching out his arms to his baby as that baby takes its first steps, out of the arms of its mother and to the arms of its father. All the while the father repeats, over and over, "You can do it! You can do it! You can do it!" What a fitting image as we strive from the arms of our loving Mother, the Church, and into the arms of our heavenly Father. Our Father doesn't tell us, "You're going to fall. You'll never get this. Why bother trying." No! As we strain to take those first steps in sanctity, all the while our Father is there telling us, "You can do it!" He has, after all, given us everything we need.

This, I believe, is why repetitious prayer, both in our prayer time and at the Liturgy, is so important. The repetition helps to change our pattern of thinking and adopt the way God thinks. In particular, when we pray the Jesus Prayer, our focus is not on our sinfulness, but on God's mercy and our need for that mercy. It is because of that mercy that sanctity has been made possible for us. Repeating the Jesus Prayer over and over drills into our minds the wonders of God's mercy towards us. Where would we be without that mercy? But that mercy also calls us to action; to determined efforts to live our lives according to the mercy and grace that has been bestowed upon us. When we live our lives completely focused on Christ as our ultimate goal, then we truly receive the gift of sanctity. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Greed or Generosity?

Here in the U.S. we experience an odd phenomenon every year. The day after Thanksgiving retail stores offer some hefty discounts on items, and folks rush to those stores in the wee hours of the morning to get all their Christmas shopping done at once. The rush can be so intense that some folks are injured and others have been killed, just so that we can save a few bucks on a gift that will most likely be set aside in a matter of a few hours.

Many Christians sit by and shake their heads, condemning the greed that they see; and rightly so. No material thing is worth putting another person's life at risk to obtain. But it has become almost stylish to condemn the "materialism" of Christmas. Today, however, I would like to propose an alternative to both the "materialistic" attitude towards Christmas, and to those who silently (or not so silently) condemn such an attitude.

I would like to put forward to you that Christmas, and particularly our giving at Christmas, is about God's generosity towards us. In His deep love for us, He gave us everything. And after giving us everything, He poured Himself out for us "emptying Himself and taking on the form of a servant." You see, we often get so caught up in giving at Christmas that we forget why we give and Who we are imitating.

This was first brought to my attention while reading one of the books by Archbishop Joseph Raya. I can't remember if it was his book on Christmas or his book on the Incarnation, but in the book Sayedna Raya encourages us to continue to give generously at Christmas, and not to cease giving, because our giving is a reflection of the Gift that God has given us on this Holiday. Our giving is a reflection of God's generosity towards us. Since we are made in God's image and likeness, our very nature demands that we reflect God's generosity. And so this time of year more than any other, we feel the urge to pour ourselves out to those we love through gifts in imitation of the One in Whose image we are created.

I'm not, of course, encouraging anyone to abandon themselves to reckless materialism during this time of year. We can take things too far and we must respect one another. But what we need to do is stand back and reflect on why we are giving (and why we are receiving as well). From the second prayer of Safro this morning we read:

"O Christ,
from your rich treasure you have enriched our poverty."

And we continue to pray that Christ enrich us by filling our hearts with veneration and respect; our souls with faith and love; our minds with spiritual thoughts; our lips with praise and glory; and our lives with good works. Enrichment, filling, abundance, these are the words the speak to us of God's generosity and humility in willing "to submit Himself to the law of human nature," as we pray in the third prayer of Safro this morning.

I think that very often we ignore or forget this great outpouring of God, His magnificent generosity. We think of this outpouring more in terms of His having created us. We think also of His death on the Cross, but I believe we often ignore the immense outpouring of the Incarnation - an outpouring without which the Cross is both impossible and meaningless. But our Liturgies are full of references to this outpouring.

The Proemion of Ramsho says:

"The cherubim fear Him when they bear Him on the fiery chariot
but in His love He concealed Himself within the pure womb of Mary."

And the Sedro of Ramsho reads:

"You are the King of kings who crowns princes and saves His people.
You raised our human nature to the throne of your glory
when you descended from that throne,
took the condition of a slave and truly became man."

And from Safro the Proemion says:

"Praise, glory and honor to the true God
whose Spirit one cannot fathom and upon whose face one cannot gaze."

And yet have we ever stopped to think that through the Incarnation we have been given the great gift to gaze upon the face of God! That is one of the reasons that we can paint icons of Christ. God has taken on flesh and we have seen His face. That is also one of the reasons that the Shroud of Turin is such an amazing gift to mankind. The face of Christ is preserved there! Do we dare to gaze into the very Face of generosity and self-gift?

The Sedro of Safro reads:

"You, Who dwell in the heights and are served by Seraphim and glorified by the Cherubim,
descended from your heavens and came to us.

And finally we pray in the Mazmooro of Saphro:

"The One Whom the Seraphim serve and dare not gaze upon the splendor of His face,
descended into the womb of the pure Virgin
and entered the house of His Forerunner."

Have we stopped to contemplate this generosity? Have we sought to imitate it? Do we embrace this self-emptying attitude towards our giving at Christmas in imitation of the Divine Gift that is being given to us (not has been, but is being  given because this Gift is eternal)? Or do we simply sit there and sneer at those "materialistic" folks who simply use Christmas as an excuse to go on shopping sprees? Are we a light to the world as Christ is our Light, or do we hide that light while sitting at home content with our own self-righteousness?

"From on high our Savior came, the Rising Sun who shone from the East, to visit us in His great mercy, we who sat in darkness and gloom. But now we see the Light of Truth, for the Lord Jesus is born of a pure Virgin Mother." (Exapostilarion of the Nativity [Byzantine])

I don't want to make this out as though giving gifts is the only, or even primary, form of generosity that we are to practice particular during this time of year. Christ is "Emmanuel," God-With-Us! Similarly this time of year we gather to be with our families and loved ones. To show them that even when we are physically absent from them, they are in our hearts and we are with them in spirit.

So as we continue to prepare ourselves for the feast of the Nativity of Christ, I think it is important that we keep all of this in mind. We are celebrating God's generosity towards us. The all-powerful One, Whom the Seraphim dare not gaze upon and Who is borne aloft by the Cherubim, emptied Himself and poured His richness upon us. He has allowed us to gaze on His face, to look into His eyes. By taking on our nature He has seated us, the lowest of His creatures, on His very throne. In celebrating God's generosity, we seek to imitate that generosity; to pour ourselves out for our loved ones and to elevate them above ourselves. To set aside our cares, desires and needs for the moment and place those of others before us. Enjoy the giving. Enjoy the receiving. Do all in love for and imitation of Christ. May heaven consume us!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cool Off, Heat Up!

Throughout my own spiritual journey I've noticed that there have been times where I have been on fire for the Lord. With prayer comes great consolations, insights, revelations, etc. Spiritual reading is alive and I see where it applies in my life. The Scriptures leap to life. The Liturgy reduces me to tears with the insight of the love of God that is literally given over to us in Communion. And like the pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim, all of creation seems to spring to life and speak of God's love, power, beauty, etc.

But then there are times where all that fades away. Prayer is simply going through the motions. The Liturgy becomes a burden of obligation rather than an occasion of joy. Read the Scriptures or any spiritual writings is dry and they might as well be in a foreign language. And even the joy that I find in creation seems to fade. The birds continue to sing, but I no longer hear them. The sun shines, but I am not illumined. The rain falls, but I don't feel the cooling drops on my face. The snow falls and all I can think of is slick roads and potential car accidents (and all the stupid drivers out there who don't know how to handle snow).

This "heating and cooling" is something that has bothered me for some time. Is it my own lack of true zeal that causes the fire of God's love to cool within me? Have I ever really had zeal for God? Have I ever truly loved God? Does God really love me? Why do I not feel this love constantly? Doubts begin to creep into my mind and I am tempted to just give up on the whole venture.

But I have come to find that these feelings are rather normal in the spiritual life. In fact, St. Theophan the Recluse dealt with these very issues in his correspondence with a young noblewoman who was seeking to live a truly spiritual life. It seems that she noticed such tendencies within her, and that these tendencies caused her no little amount of fear concerning her growth in the spiritual life. St. Theophan's response to her, like his writings in general, is so simple and so beautiful, but so deep and powerful at the same time.

In dealing with the tendency towards spiritual "heating" and "cooling" St. Theophan gives us three reasons that we might experience the (shorter or longer) periods of cooling. I'm going to start with the second one that he mentions. We may experience cooling because of physical illness. It is obviously difficult to maintain zeal for anything when one is ill. I would presume that this is so especially when one has a prolonged illness. That is one reason I admire so much the people who are ill for long periods of time and yet still maintain that zeal for the love of God. When my own mother was dying of cancer the fire of God's love seemed all the more alive in her. I'm sure we all have memories of folks who struggled through a prolonged illness and yet maintained that love of God. As for myself, if I even get the slightest fever I can't even think about uttering a single prayer, let alone maintain the fire of zeal for God.

So with the cooling caused by illness aside, let's move on to the other two reasons for spiritual cooling. The last reason that St. Theophan mentions in the letter is sin. This should be obvious to all of us. Sin - and in particular the habitual and deliberate sin to which St. Theophan refers - causes us to slowly stop listening to God's voice speaking within us. Little by little sin causes us to turn from the face of God and towards the things of the world. Sin causes us to slowly replace God and erect our own idols in His stead. Through sin we gradually deaden our conscience and reason within us and start living according to the passions. Sin really does cause us to become little more than animals, allowing ourselves to be controlled by any impulse that comes up. I'm reminded of the creation story in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan gives certain animals the ability to talk, but warns them that they can lose this ability and become like all the rest of the animals if they abuse the gift that he has given them.

Although in the letter St. Theophan doesn't really address the remedy for cooling caused by sin, I believe the answer is obvious. We need to confess our sins, receive absolution, and then go out and do penance. In the East (at least among the Byzantines) it is not the norm for the priest to prescribe some sort of penance after giving absolution; and in the West "penance" has become little more than a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys said immediately after Confession. But the best penances I have ever received have been ones that directly addressed the most common themes of my confession - themes that were noticed after going to the same priest numerous times to confess. The penance assigned becomes a sort of remedy against the sinful habit. That should be the ideal of a penance. In the East this "medicine" would be prescribed by one's spiritual father/mother, not necessarily the one to whom you made your confession. But East and West the concept is the same, prescribe some sort of antidote to the sickness of the sin.

The most common source of cooling among those who actively strive along the path of the spiritual life, according to St. Theophan, is "as a result of excessive tension of the soul's strength." This is quite humbling (and perhaps that's why God allows it). It's as if God is telling us that we are not yet strong enough to handle what He has in store for us. So, in His wisdom, He eases the tension of zeal and forces the soul to rest even if the soul doesn't want it. Perhaps it can be compared to a parent making their young child take a nap in the middle of the day even when the child doesn't think he needs the nap (yes, I'm thinking of my son right now). There will come a time when we will be able to stay awake through the entire day, but for the time being we need our "nap" in order to carry the burden of the rest of the day.

I sort of mentioned that analogy of the child taking a nap as a half-joke. But the more I think of it, the more apt it seems. I know so often in my own journey when these periods of "coolness," "aridity," "spiritual dryness," or whatever you want to call it have come up, I have complained to God - gone to my nap kicking and screaming. "Where are you, God?" "Why are you allowing this?" "Why can't I be on fire with love for you like everyone else?" "Why won't you answer me?" "Why won't you help me?" etc., etc., etc. So often I forget that God is a loving Father, and what He does isn't for my punishment, but for my own good. If we progress too quickly in the spiritual life (or perceive that we are progressing quickly), then we run the risk of falling into spiritual pride. We are unable to bear the burden of the day, maintain that spiritual tension, and so, like the child, we crash. Have you ever witnessed or experienced a crash brought about by spiritual pride because the tension of holy zeal was maintained for too long by someone (perhaps yourself) who was not yet strong enough to maintain it? God knows that we need rest. He knows that we are children and we need a break every now and then.

So what, then, is the advice of the wise St. Theophan to those who are going through this form of spiritual "cooling" brought about by too much tension? Patience!

Patience. I love this word. It reminds me so of my own spiritual father. "Calm down, Phillip." "Be patient, Phillip." "Don't worry, Phillip." How many times he repeated those lines to me. "Settle down, Phillip. It's going to be just fine." Reading the words of St. Theophan, I can hear my spiritual father's voice behind them, as if he himself is saying them to me. "Be patient. Hold fast. Don't fear. Don't fret. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well." Patience is so important in the spiritual life. Steadfast endurance! Patience is what allows us to look beyond the struggles of the moment and gaze into the future with hope. There is a wonderful line in Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice (yes, I have read it and seen almost every version put to film) uttered by the father of the heroine's family: "I'm not afraid of being overcome by the emotion. It will pass soon enough." Although he utters the line with an almost phlegmatic apathy, it can be applied to the natural cooling periods of the spiritual life. Don't be overcome by the feeling of spiritual coolness. Be patient. It will pass.

What are we to do in the meantime? How ought we to behave during these periods of spiritual cooling? Simple. Just do what you have been doing! St. Theophan tells us:

"Concerning the unintentional, inadvertent coolings that are the result of fatigue and sickness, there is one rule: Be patient and do not violate any established and pious ways, although in carrying them out, you may just be going through the motions. The cooling will quickly depart from whoever endures this patiently, and the usual warmth and sincere zeal will return... You should keep persisting in your established ways with the conviction that this routine execution of things will soon bring back the liveliness and warmth of diligence."
 
So first and foremost we are to be patient. St. Theophan really hammers this home by insisting explicitly twice that we must be patient, and then by also mentioning the patience of persistence. But then we are to continue in our spiritual rule - which includes our prayer rule(s) as well as our rule of living - even if that means just going through the motions for the time being. We must learn to "fake it 'til you make it." Keep to your routine. If you wake up early to pray in the morning, then continue to do so. If you have time set aside in the evening for prayer, then don't abandon that time. Don't abandon your daily spiritual reading. And definitely don't abandon your participation in the Liturgy. Keep to this even if it takes years before the fire of zeal is rekindled. Mother Teresa is known to have struggled through this spiritual coolness for the greater part of her life. Now she is considered one of the holiest women of the past century. So be patient. Be persistent. Hold steady, and be steadfast in your endurance. May heaven consume us.
 
(As an aside it seems very apt that as I'm writing this I'm gazing out my window at the first "major" snowfall this winter in the Greater Cincinnati area. I love the winter because it seems to quiet all the noise, the hustle and the bustle of the spring and summer. With the snow comes a certain silence that seems to deaden or dull noises that seem to echo in the summer. Even the train that passes through the valley below my apartment seems quieter at the moment. Perhaps sometimes this silence, even silence from God, can be refreshing. Have you ever sat silently at your dining room table in the morning with a loved one, just sipping coffee and reading the paper? Even though neither person seems to notice it, the presence is there and one can be refreshed and feel closer to another just by sitting in their company without words).

Friday, November 22, 2013

Prayer Rope Orders

If anyone is looking to order prayer ropes as Christmas gifts, I strongly encourage you to place the order before the end of this month (November). That way I have the time to complete all orders before the Feast of the Nativity is upon us.