Friday, September 19, 2014

Good News and Bad News

During my prayer time this morning a thought occurred to me. Among many self-proclaimed "traditional Catholics" I often hear bemoaned the fact that we rarely hear homilies on sin and hell from the pulpit these days. "Oh, if only father would preach on hell and the reality of sin! Give us that good old fire and brimstone, padre! Look at people's lives. They need to hear it. They need to hear that they're on the fast-track to hell. They (literally) need to have the hell scared out of them so they can turn their lives around." I'm generalizing here, but this is a common attitude among many traditionalists - I know because quite some time ago I myself held the same attitude (briefly).

I find two problems with this line of thinking. The first one is the "speck vs. beam" problem. The attitude above betrays a certain amount of self-righteousness. "They need to hear... People need to hear... Scare the hell out of them..." as if we ourselves do not need to be reminded of the reality of sin in our own lives. Our Lord told us to remove the beam from our own eyes before we remove the speck from our brother's. But I don't want to dwell on this point and getting bogged down in something that I think has been rather extensively talked about elsewhere.

What dawned on me in prayer this morning is that people don't need to hear so many homilies on sin and hell because for so many people the reality of sin is a lived daily experience. For so many people their lives are hell-on-earth. If you want to hear a homily on sin and hell, turn on the news channel. You will hear about the chaos in the world: war, sickness and death, starvation, violence, promiscuity, exile, homelessness. For many of us these things are just words, theories. They have a certain amount of meaning attached to them, but they exist in our minds primarily as a theory and not so much as something we've experienced. But for millions of people these realities are a part of their daily lives. They cannot escape the hell that they are living in.

And if these things are too far removed from your own personal reality, then reflect on this. In our society divorce, domestic violence, violence at school, depression and despair, suicide, sickness with unknown causes, stress, anxiety, worry; these are all a part of our daily lives. So often with things like divorce, abuse, drug addiction, pornography, etc. we get so caught up in the sinfulness of the actions and pointing out how wrong such things are that we don't stop to ask what it is that led a person to these things and what effects they are having in their lives. Take, for example, the divorced couple. We've all known folks whose marriages were torn apart by divorce. There is no such thing as a clean or happy divorce. It may tear the couple apart in society's eyes, but it also, in many ways, tears them apart within as well. Anger, resentment, bitterness, etc. they all set in and eat away at the gut.

One thing that I've been encountering on a near daily basis is young women - barely out of high-school if they're not still in high-school - who have had children out of wedlock. They struggle. They suffer. They may feel like their lives are over. Children are a huge responsibility, and how can they lift the burden of that responsibility if they themselves are still children? And it becomes even more difficult when we "churchy" people cast judgmental glances in their direction.

Have you tried to enter the inner world of the single-mother, or the drug addict, or the porn addict, or the depressed person, or the anxious? They don't need sermons on sin and hell. They've lived it. They've experienced it. The world is tired. The world has grown old. The reality of sin and hell in our world has caused it to age more and more with each passing day.

What the world needs is hope, joy, peace. What the world needs is some Good News. Why did Christ command His Apostles to preach the Good News and not the bad news? Because people already know the bad news. Have you ever flipped on the news channel, watched it for about 30 minutes, then shut it off feeling tired and emotionally drained? I can't listen to the news on the radio for more than 5 minutes without feeling that way. We all know the bad news. We all know the reality of sin in this world. We all know and have experienced hell on earth.

But Christ tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand; and the Church proclaims that She is the Kingdom of God on earth. This theme of the Kingdom is very dominant in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. At the beginning of the Divine Liturgy the priest proclaims, "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages." But if this theme is explicit in the Byzantine Liturgy, it is still present, although implicitly, in the other Liturgical Rites of the Church.

The Good News proclaims Christ's Kingdom, and Christ's Kingdom is one of peace. In the Maronite tradition every Divine Liturgy begins and ends with peace. We pray "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth and good will to all. Praise the Lord, all you nations. Glorify Him, all you peoples. For steadfast is His mercy towards us, and the truth of the Lord endures forever." And the priest, at the beginning of the Liturgy, blesses the people singing, "Peace be with the Church and Her children." At the end of the Liturgy we are told to "go in peace... with the nourishment you have received from the forgiving altar of the Lord." And as we sing our final hymn the priest prays, "I leave you in peace, O holy Altar..."

Even in the Roman Mass the priest opens by proclaiming "Peace be with you," and closes by proclaiming, "Go in peace..." Through the Roman Mass, the Maronite Qurbono, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, and all the other Liturgies of the Church we hear these proclamations of peace. The priest is constantly saying to us, "Peace be with you..." or some form of that.

The Kingdom of God ushers peace into the world. How well are we living that peace? Are we letting the peace of Christ, the peace of the Kingdom, shine through us upon the darkness of the world around us? Are we letting that peace shine into the darkness of our own hearts? Are we allowing the peace of the Kingdom to transform us so that we might go out and transform the chaos of the world?

People don't need to hear about sin and hell so much. They need the Good News. They need the peace of Christ proclaimed to them. But most importantly, they need to encounter that peace in another, they need to experience that peace in their own lives. How can they experience it if they have no one to bring it to them? And how can we bring it to them if we have not allowed ourselves to first be transformed by the light of Christ's peace?

St. Paul tells us in Philippian 4:4-7; "Rejoice in our Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice. Let your humility be known to all men. Our Lord is at hand. Do not worry over things, but always by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving (NAB says: "petitions full of gratitude") let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ."

Rejoicing, humiliy, God's presence, calm through trust in God and gratitude for His gifts, peace; these are the signs of God's Kingdom in our lives. May His Kingdom spread, beginning with us. May the Good News touch and transform our lives, so that we might take that Good News out into a world that has been so full of bad news. And may heaven consume us.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Get Messy

I am coming to realize more and more that there is no room for timidity in the spiritual life. One cannot expect to advance in the spiritual life if one is unwilling to boldly take the first step, even if that first step is in the wrong direction. You cannot draw closer to God if you are not willing to move from where you currently stand. You can read and study and listen to spiritual talks all you want, but if you are too timid to put into action the truths that you study, then you will not progress.

This particularly struck home to me yesterday while I was reading St. Theophan the Recluse's book The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation. I know I have been quoting from St. Theophan for some time now, but I cannot recommend his writings highly enough. He has a way of cutting to the chase and presenting his themes with a clarity and honesty that make his writings easily accessible - and as a busy husband, father and employee I need writings that are easily accessible; I'm sure you all can relate.

St. Theophan tells us that in the spiritual life "Experience is the best teacher - one only needs to have the zealous desire to conquer himself" (The Path to Salvation, pg. 297). This means that, whether or not we have a spiritual father or mother available to us, we can still only progress by jumping headlong into the spiritual life, all the while trusting in our loving Father to send us the people we need to guide and correct us as we go along. The "desire to conquer" oneself is nothing less than the willingness to humbly accept correction when correction is needed, as well as encouragement when encouragement is offered. Sometimes we get so caught up in giving and receiving correction that we forget the necessity of giving and receiving encouragement.

I think that over time and because of our past experiences we develop an almost paralyzing timidity towards life in general, and towards the spiritual life in particular. I know that I personally have encountered so many difficulties, setbacks and failures in my life that I feel more comfortable thoroughly researching any new project or undertaking before I take my first steps - if I take my first steps. I must admit that I've applied this principle, this timidity, in my spiritual life as well. I will sit and read book after book and listen to talk after talk on the spiritual life, but it takes me a great deal of time before I start applying what I've learned in my own life. Not that reading and listening to spiritual lectures is a bad thing, but what use are they if we are not going to act? St. Francis of Assisi was famous for acting before he thought. He would be inspired to some course of action and jump headlong into it. Oftentimes he would realize later that it was a wrong course of action, and then he would correct his course - in essence he would repent. This is characteristic of all the saints. It's not that they had a roadmap completely laid out for them in detail and then they just walked straight into heaven without taking a wrong turn from time to time. No. They made mistakes and then accepted correction and changed course.

"The first ascetics did not study from books, but nevertheless they represent the very image of conquerors" (The Path of Salvation, pg. 297). The ascetics of the early Church, the great desert fathers and mothers, were bold enough to take action on what they heard. We see this in the life of St. Antony the Great. Upon hearing Christ command us in the Gospel to go out and sell our belongings, he willingly gave up everything so that he could follow Christ without attachment. The Scriptures, as they are proclaimed and prayed liturgically, were the primary guide of the desert fathers and mothers. They made mistakes and often times went to excess in their ascetic labors. But they were always open to correction. The main point is that the put the Gospel, the Good News, into action. They took that first step, even if it was in the wrong direction.

Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., in a lecture he gave on the role of the laity in the Church, relates the story of a seminarian's mother at home in India. They lived in a town where they were the only Christian family. This seminarian's mother could not read. But she was attentive to the Gospel message that she heard proclaimed in the Church, and she put that message to action in her life. Her life itself was such an example of holiness that it led her son into the priesthood. Her life itself was such an example of holiness that, upon hearing her story (and even upon retelling it), it reduced such a great scholar as Fr. Taft to tears! A little old woman who could not read reducing the learned to tears simply by her life! That is a woman who heard the message and boldly took those first steps.

In his opening address to the congregation gathered in Rome, anxiously awaiting a word from the newly elected Pontiff, Pope St. John Paul II said, "Do not be afraid." Don't be afraid to throw yourself headlong into the loving arms of our Abba. Sure there will be difficulties and disappointments. Of course you will fall and need to get back up. But fortitude isn't just courage in the face of danger. Fortitude is persistence in times of difficulty. It is resilience during moments of disappointment. It is the ability to stand up after falling and to continue doing what is right. Fortitude is the ability to accept correction and change course when needed.

My son has been very much about watching an old show that I used to watch when I was little; "The Magic Schoolbus." In the show the teacher, Ms. Frizzle, has a line to encourage her students to jump headlong into their scientific inquiries: "It's time to get messy and make mistakes." This could easily be applied to our spiritual life. We have to be bold. We have to be willing to get messy. No soldier in combat comes out of combat clean. He comes out filthy, smeared with dirt, smelling of sweat and gunpowder, sometimes covered in blood. The only clean soldier is one who has never seen combat. A clean soldier does not win victories. It's true in the spiritual life as well. We can study the tactics of spiritual warfare until the day we die, but if we do not utilize those tactics to engage the enemy within, then we will never know the glory of victory. So get messy! Make mistakes! Struggle so as to win the victory. It is time. May heaven consume us.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Know Your Catechism!"

Some time ago I recall reading a book by Archbishop Joseph Raya on the Sacraments of Initiation. The late Archbihop Raya - Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop of Akka, Haifa, Nazareth, and Galilee - is one of my all-time favorite authors. In many ways he is, to me, the Melkite equivalent to Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He may not have had his own television show, and he may not have been as prolific in his writings, but Kyr Raya has this way of taking the great truths of our Faith and presenting them in such a way that they are understandable by all, but without diminishing the depths of the truths presented.

In this particular book, Theophany and the Sacraments of Initiation, Archbishop Raya refers to the Creed that we recite or sing at the Mass/Divine Liturgy as a "Hymn of Harmony and Glory," a "charter of our Christian life." For Kyr Raya the Creed, as with so many other things in our Faith, is a celebration!

This thought has stuck with me since then because how often do we experience the Creed as anything but a cold listing of the essential dogmas of our Faith? If we just skim over it during the Liturgy - and I am as guilty of this as the next person - then we will find little in it to make it seem as a "hymn of glory." At best we will see only the basic kerygma, the essential proclamations of our Faith; truths that we have either repeated or had repeated to us so many times that they no longer strike us with the sense of wonder and surprise that they should produce in us.

But herein lies the problem. We have reduced the Creed (and so many other things in our Faith) to little more than a philosophy. It is, for so many of us, a list of intellectual beliefs. We repeat over and over "I/we believe... I/we believe... I/we believe" and we presume that such "belief" is nothing more than a basic intellectual assent. Sure the intellectual assent is necessary, but that is only the beginning. St. Theophan tells us that if we do not allow the truth of our Faith to penetrate down into our hearts and to completely transform us, then "truth is stuffed into the head like sand, and the spirit becomes cold and hard, smokes over and puffs up" (The Path of Salvation: pg. 249). Isn't this what St. Paul is getting at in his wonderful discourse on love; "If I have all faith so as to move mountains, but have not love... I am nothing."

So what does the Creed do for us? The Creed is a basic catechesis. It distills for us the realities that we profess and that have been revealed to us. These are not just intellectual truths to which we give assent, they are realities that we are called to enter into, to participate in. We profess the reality of one God in three Persons. We rejoice in the reality that God the Father created us out of nothing through His eternal Word and by the power of His Holy Spirit. We celebrate the reality that, out of His great love for us, the eternal Word willed to become man for our sake so that we might glory in the divine life that we had lost through sin. In all of this we hear the voice of the Spirit speaking through the Prophets and throughout all of history, pointing us to the reality of the incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. And we celebrate the reality that Christ has willed to continue His presence among us through His bride the Church, and that He will come again to bring us to our eternal home at the end of time.

When we look at these things as realities and not just as intellectual concepts, they take on a whole new meaning. What cause for rejoicing and celebration! What cause for gratitude! What cause for true conversion to a God who loves us so much! This is the whole point of catechesis. St. Theophan again tells us that we need to "study our catechism," so to speak; that we need to learn the essential truths of our Faith. But learning these truths does not mean learning them as intellectual concepts, or mere facts that we might repeat in a game of trivia. When studying our Faith, learning our catechism (and yes, catechesis applies equally to the East as it does to the West), we must learn with an open heart. We must contemplate the truths of our Faith in our hearts as did the Theotokos. We must allow ourselves to be completely transformed by the realities that we study and profess. The whole point of our study is to know more and more about the One we love, not just to cram our heads full of trivia. Love desires to know the beloved on all levels; and so we seek the Lord in prayer, in the Sacraments, in the Liturgical life of the Church, in study, and in good works. May heaven consume us!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Little Heroes

As I was sitting at my kitchen table this morning, tying prayer ropes and listening to an Orthodox pastor give his "testimony" on his journey from Pentecostal/Evangelical Protestantism to Orthodoxy, I looked over and saw one of my completed prayer ropes sitting on a pile of mail. Such a scene is not unusual in my apartment. I've got prayer ropes lying around all over the place here. Some are used for prayer, others are used by my children as toys of some sort, others are uncompleted projects waiting for completion, and others are just a mess made by my children when they got into my prayer rope supplies. But today in particular the scene of this prayer rope lying on top of a stack of mail really struck me.

While listening to this Greek Orthodox pastor speak about his conversion to Orthodoxy, he spoke about how so many Christians think of their faith in terms of a contract: I do xyz, and God doesn't send me to Hell. He pointed out that this is why many can so easily enter into divorce without even batting an eye, as though divorce is simply the natural end of a marriage. This contractual approach to our relationships with one another and with God miss the point of relationships entirely. Relationships are not a "give-and-take," as we are so often told by mainstream "wisdom." Christ Himself shows us that relationships are meant to be self-gift.

But I'm straying a little here. There's a stack of mail with a prayer rope on top, a computer, an empty coffee cup (much in need of refilling), a journal and a book by St. Theophan, some roses I bought for my wife, and behind the roses some empty beer bottles from dinner with my father, sister, and father-in-law three nights ago. This is what I see lying before me as I'm struck by this simple prayer rope on a stack of mail. You see, relationships permeate everything we do and everything we think about. We've all had that experience of "falling in love." We've all been so twitterpated by some person that they are what we think about the moment we wake up. They are what we think about throughout the day. They are what we think about as we lay down to sleep. They can even be what we dream about throughout the night. Have you ever experienced this? You love your beloved so much that your very thoughts and actions become oriented to them. Isn't this what marriage is all about? The lover holds the beloved before his eyes at all times, constantly thinks of ways to please her, and would never dream of doing anything to hurt her. Even in day-to-day activities the thought of how his thoughts and actions may affect his beloved are always in his mind, even of only on a subconscious level.

This is the relationship we ought to have with God, and the relationship He obviously desires to have from us if we are to take Him at His Word. How do our actions and thoughts affect our relationship with God? Is God our first thought upon rising? Are we centered on God throughout the day? Are we continually mindful of God's loving presence with us throughout the day? Do we turn to him before retiring for the night, or do we just turn on the radio or television?

In the midst of our day-to-day living everything we do is supposed to be permeated with the love of God. Our thoughts and actions are meant to be "pregnant" with the love of God so that we might "give birth" to God in the world through our very lives. We are not necessarily called to grand heroic actions, but to the heroic action of living every moment, especially the hum-drum moments of daily life, in the love of God. Studies in marriage relationships have shown that it is not great romantic gestures that make for a happy marriage. In an unhappy marriage such gestures can often at best be moments of awkwardness, and at worst deteriorate into misunderstanding and further marital troubles. What makes any marriage a happy marriage is how the spouses respond to each other in the small day-to-day events.

Why would we think that our prayer life, our life in Christ, would be any different? St. Theophan teaches us that we need to study our Faith, not just for information, but in such a way that it penetrates down into our hearts and eventually transforms and permeates the way we see everything, what we think, and how we act. Sure that stack of mail laying under the prayer rope may be hum-drum - it may be day-to-day; but when permeated with the love of God, that stack of bills, those dishes that still need washed, that dirty diaper, that dead-end 9 - 5 job, all these things become the means of salvation for us. The question is, are we up to the task of day-to-day heroics? Answer: No we're not, but God is; and through prayer He will give us what we need to be "little heroes." May heaven consume us.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Always New Beginnings

In his wonderful "Summa" of the spiritual life, The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation, St. Theophan the Recluse describes for us the attitude that we ought to have in approaching the spiritual life and the life of prayer. Amidst the "rules" given to us either by the Church or by our spiritual director; amidst our daily routine of prayer, spiritual reading, and ascetic labors; amidst our weekly routine of participation in the liturgical life and cycle of the Church, we are to maintain the attitude of a beginner. Here is what St. Theophan has to say:

"The beginner thus with fervent and speedy zeal puts everything he has into the most resolute ascetic labors, nevertheless awaiting strength and help from God and giving himself to Him, hoping for success but not seeing it. Therefore he is in a state of perpetual beginning, under the direction of a father, bounded by rules, and holding to the most humble part." (Path to Salvation pg. 217)

We see here a few characteristics that can be summed up with one word: humility. We see that the beginner throws himself into the spiritual life with a freshness and a zeal that is not always found among those who have been struggling in the spiritual life for some years. The beginner has a sense of urgency in the spiritual life. He sees that he has wasted a great deal of his life in vain pursuit. Almost in an effort to compensate for the wasted time he rushes headlong "with fervent and speedy zeal" into the work of the spiritual life. But while doing this he does not rely on his own strength. The beginner knows from past experience that he is weak and very susceptible to fall. He knows that he does not possess the requisite strength to succeed in the spiritual life. So what does he do? He awaits "strength and help from God... giving himself to Him." The beginner hopes fervently for success in the spiritual life, but does not see it - at least not in this life. He is so focused on the love of God for us that he only sees his distance from God and how much further he has to go. At the end of his life, St. Francis of Assisi - often considered one of the most Christ-like of all the saints of the West - is reported to have said, "Let us begin, for up until now we have done nothing." This coming from a saint who brought thousands to Christ in his own lifetime, and who inspired future generations up until our own age to come to a love for Christ and His Church. St. Francis is one of those men who truly gave up everything out of love for Christ, even sacrificing his own self-will and self-seeking pleasure to serve the less fortunate (anyone who knows of St. Francis' aversions to lepers knows what he did, in an act of total self-defiance, to bring the love of Christ to lepers).

There is also the story of, I believe, St. Arsenius the Great. On his deathbed he was seen to be mumbling in prayer. "What are you saying," the brothers asked. "I am asking for more time," the saint replied. "More time for what?" "More time to repent," said Arsenius. "Oh, you don't need to repent," said the brothers, "Everyone knows that you are already holy and perfect." "Truly," replied Arsenius, "I don't know that I've even begun to repent."

We see such an attitude also in the great mystics of the Carmelite tradition, Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Both of these great saints, while describing the various stages or ages of the spiritual life, spoke of how we ought not to gauge our progress in the spiritual life, because such an exercise inevitably leads to the greatest fall of all, pride. Instead we ought to act as humble beginners, with our eyes constantly focused on the love and mercy of Christ. This is especially seen in the writings of St. John of the Cross, particularly in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. St. Teresa, on the other hand, adds an additional emphasis; the need of a spiritual director.

This leads us to the second attitude of the beginner. The beginner in the spiritual life does not trust himself. He does not even trust his interpretations of the spiritual books he reads, but rather submits everything to a spiritual father or mother, or at the very least to a spiritual friend who can help him make the arduous journey through the spiritual life. Anyone familiar with the traditions of the Christian East knows of the very strong emphasis Eastern Christians place on the role of the spiritual director (father or mother). The director needs to be someone who has experience in the spiritual life so that they can guide us through the dense forest and fog that sin has created within us. The spiritual guide need not be a priest, monk, or nun, but simply a holy person to whom God has given the gift of spiritual fatherhood or motherhood (not every holy person, after all, has been given this gift - but that doesn't make them any less holy). A spiritual guide is not there simply to impose rules of prayer, fasting, reading, and ascetic labors on us. Any such thing that a guide imposes is for the benefit of the individual seeking spiritual growth. It is a medicine meant to cure the passions that have, to this point, controlled us. A spiritual guide is meant to lead us to the freedom of the Spirit. The beginner, therefore, recognizing his inclination towards sin, submits his will to his spiritual director in an effort to overcome self-indulgence and self-will.

This leads us to the third attitude of the beginner: submission. Recognizing his need for guidance and healing, the beginner humbly submits and is obedient to the rules imposed on him by his director. Again, these rules aren't meant to bind the beginner, but to heal him from self-will. There is a problem here, however. Many spiritual directors today are hesitant to offer any rule to their directees. Folks come to these directors for advice and guidance, but get the impression that their director is acting more as a sounding board for their spiritual struggles rather than as a guide to bring them through to freedom. I know I've encountered that from time to time in my journey. But here is the way I see it. We are so far removed from holiness and from the "age of the saints" that we need to be even more basic in our search for spiritual healing. The guides that we seek out often cannot help us because they are often not much further along the inner path than we are. They may be able to help us to a point, but only to a point. So what do we do? We must look to the Church. If you are familiar with the liturgical practice of your particular Church, then you have all the rules you need to at least make a good humble beginning in the ascetic life. Every Church has rules for fasting, including when to fast, what to fast from, and a description of the purpose of fasting itself. Every Church also has a cycle of reading found in the Lectionary as well as in the Divine Office. "Oh, but that's just Scripture. what about the spiritual writings of the great mystics?" If you're not reading the Scriptures, then the writings of the great mystics and theologians of the Church aren't going to do you much good. Remember that the Scriptures are the Word of God in human words. The writings of the mystics, on the other hand, are just that: writings of holy people, but not the Word of God. We should at the very least be reading a little Scripture every day.

The final attitude that the beginner possesses, according to St. Theophan, is that of "holding to the most humble part." We need not look for great ascetical feats to accomplish. We needn't kneel on a rock for a year straight like St. Seraphim. We needn't live on top of a pillar and have our food sent up to us in a basket. We needn't live on bread and water for the rest of our lives. We are beginners. We should choose the humble part. We need to learn to show our love for God in the little things of life. St. Therese of Lisieux - another great Carmelite mystic - expressed this in her doctrine of the "Little Way." Throughout our day-to-day lives we do little things that express our love for God and neighbor. Maybe we forgo dessert at dinner time. Maybe we help out a co-worker that we find particularly annoying. Maybe we take out the garbage without being asked by our parents or spouse to do so. Maybe we pack up the family and go to the park despite the fact that we're exhausted from a long day of work and would rather sit at home and relax a bit. It doesn't matter. What matters is that we do these simple things, the little acts of self-denial, with great love.

If we would keep our zeal in the spiritual life blazing, then we must maintain the attitude of a beginner. We must maintain that sense of newness and wonder that you find in any two or three year old child. The spiritual world is always fresh and new, it is we who allow ourselves to grow old and tired. May the wind of the Spirit always blow over us, refresh us, and make all things new in us. And may heaven consume us.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

New Life and Renewed Life

As we take our leave of the seasons of Easter and Pentecost, we once again resume the life of repentance, of ongoing conversion. Granted our repentance and our penance is not as intense as during Great Lent, or even Advent for that matter, but we are still called to repentance and penance because we all have sinned, we all have some area in our life that lies in darkness and needs to be penetrated by the light of Christ so that Christ can set about the task of healing us of our sickness.

Repentance, I believe, really has a bad reputation among people in the Western world. We think of it in terms of guilt, depression, a "woe-is-me" attitude. We were caught with our hand in the cookie jar, and now we stand before our Father in shame. But that is not what repentance is all about.

We have just celebrated one of the most joyful seasons of the liturgical year. We have been celebrating the fact that we have been made a new creation through Christ's resurrection and been given new life through the descent of the Holy Spirit. We have had breathed into us the new life of grace. How spiritually and psychologically messed up would it be for the Church to shift so abruptly from such a joyous season to a season where we feel nothing but guilt and shame over our falleness! But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Church is very much in touch with reality, not only the reality of the material world, but more fully the reality of the material world in light of the spiritual world. In our Baptism we were given the new life of grace, new life in Christ by the creative (or we could say re-creative) power of the Holy Spirit. The old man was put to death and a new man has arisen from the baptismal font. Or we could think of the font as an entry into the womb of our Mother, the Church, from which we are reborn or "born again" into the life of grace. Through baptism the old creation is destroyed as was the world at the time of the Flood, and from the waters a new creation is brought forth. Death and resurrection, rebirth, a new creation, this is what we celebrate at our baptism and what we enter into every year through the celebration of Great Lent, Easter and Pentecost. In the Roman tradition this is emphasized even more strongly through the renewal of the baptismal vows on Easter Sunday.

Despite this rebirth, this resurrection, this recreation, however, we remain fallen beings. The seeds of sin still grow within us, and we have to work continually to uproot them. Recognizing this, St. Theophan the Recluse, along with other Eastern Fathers and Mothers, identified two hinges upon which the life of grace turns: Baptism and Repentance. Here he means repentance in its fuller sense of the actual Sacramental confession of one's sins in addition to the ascetic life in general. If we are given this new life, the life of grace, in Baptism, then that life is renewed in us after we fall through repentance and Confession.

We have been given the gift of Confession because Christ knows our weakness. He knows that despite the new life that is given to us, we will fall. But He loves us enough to provide us a way back, a way to renew the life within us through humble admission and confession of our sins. Is this not what the Father did at the very first moment after the fall of Adam and Eve! Immediately after our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, our heavenly Father gave them multiple chances to confess in order to renew the life that had just been given them. First He starts with Adam, who accuses not only the woman of causing his fall, but indirectly accuses God (the woman whom you put here with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it). God then turns to Eve, who very promptly passes blame on to the serpent. Instead of owning up to their fall and allowing the Father to then forgive and restore their relationship with Him, they hide in their shame and choose to pass blame from one person to another. I could go on and on about how we continue this trend, not only as a society, but in our own individual spiritual lives as well.

But here is the gift of repentance and Confession that has been given to us. We have been given this new life in grace, but we often turn from that life through our sinfulness. However, our loving Father continues to ask us, "Where are you?" It's as if He is asking us, "Where are you in relation to me?" or "Where do we stand in relation to one another?" Just like with Adam and Eve, we are given the chance to admit our falls so as to restore our relationship to the Father in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit; we are given the chance to allow God to renew His life within us! Do we take that chance, or do we hide in shame because we are "naked?" Do we attempt to cover up our sin with fig leaves? Or, after we have done that, do we attempt to accuse others of causing us to sin instead of taking responsibility for what we have done?

So not only have we been given new life, but we have been given the means to renew that life within us when we turn from the new life that has been given us in Baptism. Seasons of fasting and repentance, therefore, do not stand in contrast to the great seasons of rejoicing. Rather, repentance, Confession, fasting, ascetic labor, etc. allow us to re-enter the joy of Easter by providing us the opportunity to renew the life of grace within us. This is why repentance should not be an occasion for an overly guilty conscience or an exaggerated emphasis on shame. Guilt and shame certainly enter into our repentance because we recognize what it is that we have done through our sins, but guilt and shame are not the fullness of repentance, only its starting point. True repentance takes that guilt and shame and exposes it naked before our heavenly Father. It humbly acknowledges our sins before the Father so that He might restore us and renew His life within us. Repentance, therefore, is an opportunity for rejoicing and for gratitude. Repentance rejoices because of the life of grace restored in us. May heaven consume us!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Restoration!

I must admit that the Feast of Pentecost has always been a difficult feast for me to understand. Oh sure, I know it's the feast where we celebrate the decent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, and through them on the whole Church. I know too that we are called to live in the power of the Holy Spirit. But I've never been clear on what that means. Studying the Catechism growing up we are told of the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, but the inner meaning of those gifts and fruits never really penetrated into my heart. I knew what they were, but I didn't really know what they were, if you get my meaning. Searching out the inner meaning of those gifts and wanting to understand through experience what it means to "live in the Spirit," I began to participate in the Charismatic Renewal.

There is a lot of good in the Charismatic Renewal, and it is my sincere hope that it will continue to grow both in numbers as well as in spiritual depth. But even during my time as an active participant in the renewal, I still felt as if there were something lacking in the depth of expression about the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it was because the reception of the Holy Spirit is often viewed as a non-liturgical event, or rather is divorced from the reception of the Spirit in its liturgical setting at Baptism and Confirmation. One goes to a prayer meeting, is prayed over by maybe one person, maybe a group, and one opens oneself to receiving the gift of the Spirit. St. Theophan does talk about this openness. And perhaps what the Renewal has done is to make explicit that moment in our lives where we decide to fully embrace the Faith as our own and to live our lives radically for Christ. But for me there was still something missing.

Then today it dawned on me. What should be completely obvious thanks to the structure of the Church's liturgical life only just now hit me. Had I been paying attention I'm sure it would've hit me twenty years ago or more. But I suppose God waits to reveal certain things until we are ready to receive them. Pentecost is the feast of the completion of the new creation! What was begun at the Incarnation of Christ has now been completed by the decent of the Holy Spirit! Allow me to explain.

In the beginning we are told that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters (Gen. 1:2). The Hebrew word for "Spirit" here is "ruah." Interestingly this same word is used for "breath" when "the Lord God formed Adam out of the soil and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7). So the very breath of life that is breathed into man is not just the ability to draw air into his lungs and then push the air out so that he can then draw it back in. It is not simply the ability to breathe. The breath of life that is breathed into man is the very Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit! So from the very beginning man is endowed with the very life of God, the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, the end of verse 7 from Gen.2 becomes mind blowing: "and man became a living being."

Imagine, from the first moment of creation we were alive with the very Life of God! From the first moment of our creation we were participants in the life of God! From the first moment of our creation we were participants in the Divine nature! What would that have looked like if we had developed that Life within us? We would've lived lives full of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity. These things wouldn't have been experienced as something that we acquire as if from outside of ourselves through a great deal of struggle. These fruits were at the very core of our nature! In a sense these fruits are at the very essence of what it means to be human persons! But we lost that. We turned from the Divine Life that was bestowed on us and we became slaves to death and darkness. Sin isn't a transgression against an arbitrary moral code; nor is it merely "missing the mark." Sin is metanoia in the wrong direction! Sin is a turning from light to darkness, from Life to death, from freedom to enslavement. We were sons and daughters of God, and we chose to make ourselves slaves to death. The Life of the Spirit was in us, and we rejected that Life.

So when God commands Adam not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and warns that the moment he eats of that fruit Adam will surely die (Gen. 2:17), God is not so much talking about physical death. If it is the breath (ruah) of God, i.e. the Holy Spirit, that makes man a living being, then death is the deprivation of the breath (ruah) of God. Death is a deprivation of the Holy Spirit. Death is the deprivation of life in the Spirit! Physical death is a consequence of the loss of the Divine Life that was breathed into man from the first moment of his creation!

Now, fast-forward to the coming of Christ. Our Lord Jesus took our fallen human nature to Himself at the Incarnation. He put that fallen nature to death at the Cross. He returned that nature to the dust of the ground when He was buried in the tomb. He formed for man a new body when He rose from the tomb. And then He breathed new life into the new man by sending down the Holy Spirit. Once again we can participate in the Divine Life by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit! So Pentecost, then, is the completion of the new creation accomplished in Christ Jesus. Life in the Spirit is nothing less than a restoration of the Divine Life that was originally bestowed upon us at our creation. What we lost through sin has again been restored to us. May heaven consume us.