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.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Where's the Zeal???

I remember listening to religious talks on cassette and CD with my family as a young boy. These talks were given by men and women who had either converted to the Catholic Church from another denomination (usually Protestant) or even another religion. Sometimes they were given by folks who were raised Catholic, fell away from the Faith, then rediscovered their Faith in some sort of dramatic conversion experience. Dr. Scott Hahn, Christopher West, Janet Smith, Fr. John Corapi, a number of priests from the Fathers of Mercy, etc. These folks seemed to be constantly playing on our radio in the car as we drove to and from daily Mass, or as we went about our daily farm chores. Their talks always had an huge impact on me. I was enthralled by every word they spoke. They really made the Faith "come alive" for me.

What struck me most about their talks, however, was the intense zeal that they exuded, along with their deep knowledge of the Faith. Of course at the time I did not realize that most of them had been studying the Faith for decades, and not a small number of them held doctorate and graduate degrees in theology (and sometimes philosophy as well). As a little boy the concept of academic degrees had not yet entered my consciousness. All I knew was that these were men and women who knew their Faith - I mean really KNEW their Faith - and were passionate and full of zeal to share that Faith with anyone willing to listen.

I would often reflect on their lectures with a hint of sadness mixed in with intense longing. I wanted to be like that. I wanted to know my Faith and experience my Faith the way they did. I wanted that fire, that zeal, that passion. But I was a cradle Catholic. I've never had any sort of dramatic "conversion experience" to another Faith, nor have I had any sort of dramatic "reversion" experience where I've rediscovered my childhood Faith. No. For me the Faith of my childhood has been the Faith I've professed all throughout my life, and most likely it will be the Faith I profess right up to the moment that I enter into the new life beyond the grave. Sure I've "discovered" Eastern Christianity in both its Catholic and Orthodox expressions, and I've very much found a home there. But still the Faith is one. The emphases and cultural expressions may differ, but at their root I still discover the same Faith with which I grew up.

So what is a cradle Catholic (or Orthodox for that matter) to do? How is someone who has no dramatic conversion story to kindle within themselves the zeal of those who have had such an experience? St. Theophan the Recluse points out in his marvelous book The Path to Salvation: A Manual of Spiritual Transformation that even those initiated into the Faith as infants are called to kindle this same zeal. We all reach a definitive moment where we must make the Faith our own. We must choose to embrace the Faith, that was embraced on our behalf as infants by our godparents, as mature adults. This is the "conversion story" of those who are born into their Faith. It is a conversion not of moving from one Faith to another, but of accepting as our own the gift of grace given to us at our baptism. (cf. pages 38 - 41 in The Path of Salvaiton).

We all reach a moment where the seed of faith, planted in us at our Baptism and nourished in us by our parents and godparents, is now ours to nurture. The responsibility for tending and growing that seed passes over to us. The question becomes, will we embrace the responsibility, or will we allow our seed to die?

Every farmer knows the great amount of work that goes into nurturing seeds into mature plants. It takes patience, sacrifice, vigilance, and great care. You face the threat of weeds from within your own soil. They constantly threaten to take over your garden and choke out your crops. I remember at times pulling up weeds that were the size of small trees (yes, occasionally certain areas of our family garden became quite neglected). When weeds grow that thick it is impossible for anything else, except other weeds, to grow. Apart from the weeds, you also must face the threat of disease, insects, animals, and the elements attacking and destroying your plants from without as it were. Insects were always one of my least favorite threats to deal with. They are many, and they eat away not only at the fruit of your plants, but at the plants themselves (plus they just give me the creepy-crawlies).

It took constant watchfulness to bring our garden to fruition. But once harvest season came along, man was the food good!

We can make the same comparison for the spiritual life. Those of us who are cradle Catholics or Orthodox, but long for the zeal of the new convert, must simply tend the garden that was planted within us. God will bring it to fruition, but not without us showing how dedicated we are to the Faith. The fire of the Holy Spirit will descend, but in God's time, not ours. In the meantime we must do the same things that a new convert would do: pray, study, be attentive at the Liturgy, form strong friendships with like-minded spiritual people, seek guidance. In reality the new convert doesn't do anything that we cradle Catholics/Orthodox should not also be doing. We just often take our Faith for granted and then don't do what we ought to be doing. So let's begin, for up till now we have done nothing. May heaven consume us.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mere Laymen?

It is often discouraging - or perhaps overwhelming is a better way to put it - to be a layman talking about the deep spirituality of the Jesus Prayer and trying to share it with others. So often we read from the writings of well-intentioned folks that only monastics have a true grasp on the spiritual life and the depths of the Jesus Prayer. We are given the impression that if we really want to live a life of silence and solitude within the heart, then we really ought to be monastics. Folks living in the world can gain an experience of this silence and solitude within, but they can't live in it continually because they are caught up in the cares of this life. Even when encouraged to read writings such as the Philokalia we are given the warning that the writings are directed towards monastics and that they are not really directed at "lay people."

I often get the sense that that phrase, "lay people," is often used as an almost derogatory phrase. We put ourselves down because, after all, isn't holiness reserved primarily for clergy and monastics? Perhaps there are even times when clergy and monastics are hesitant to take the words of the laity seriously because, after all, "they're only lay people."

But I have been encouraged lately through the writings of the saints, in particular through St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov. But I'll come to that in a moment. I would like to recommend a lecture given by Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. at an Orientale Lumen Conference given on the "theology of the laity." He titles his talk "The Laity in the Church? The Laity Are the Church." (emphasis is his). Now, one thing I love about listening to Fr. Taft is that while being very highly educated and extremely intelligent, he is also very humble. After all of his years spent in academic theology, he is moved to tears while telling the story of an old woman, a married lay woman, living the Gospel life in a small village in India where her family was the only Christian family and they had no parish church. She had a simple faith and she lived it. She couldn't read, so she didn't even have the opportunity to read the writings of the great Fathers of the Church. But she heard the Gospel message and then lived it. Have a listen to the lecture, it is quite good: http://www.ancientfaith.com/specials/orientale_lumen_xvi_conference/archimandrite_robert_taft_greek_catholic .

Now, isn't that what the spiritual life, the life of a Christian is all about? Aren't we all called to live the Gospel, or as St. Ignatius Brianchaninov says, the "commandments of the Gospel," in a radical way? This radical living of the "commandments of the Gospel" is not something restricted to clergy and monastics, but is the calling of all Christians. And just as this radical living is the calling of all Christians, so too is the calling to support one another in such living. As St. Paul says, we are all members of the one body of Christ, be each member has it's specific role. We must be grateful for our role as lay people in the body of Christ, just as clergy and monastics must be grateful for their roles. And we must support one another as members of Christ's body. The laity require the support of clergy and monastics, and the clergy and monastics require the support of the laity. We all need one another.

This was recently illustrated to me in St. Ignatius' book The Arena. In it he talks about the necessity of a person first living the Gospel life in the world, among the cares and anxieties and distractions of the world, before then entering the monastery. If a person is unable to live the Gospel in the world, then they will certainly be unable to live the Gospel in a monastery. The monastery is not meant to be an escape from the world. It is in the monastery that one intensifies the life of the Gospel that one has already been living in the world.

Another source of encouragement for me has been reading St. Theophan the Recluse's letters to a young lay woman in the book The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It. In one chapter he is teaching the young lady about the use of a prayer rope. He tells her how to establish the number of times one is to go around the prayer rope, what prayers to say, how we can use the rule of the prayer rope to replace the typical morning and evening prayer rules found in the prayer books, and even how some monastics use the prayer rope to replace the singing of the Divine Office. In his discussion with her he goes on to say that he is not trying to "drive her into a monastery." He says that the prayer rope is used by both monastics and lay people alike. What really struck me, however, is the fact that he admits that he himself learned to use a prayer rope from a lay person! Such a great saint was taught how to use a prayer rope by a layman! Think on that.

In the end, we all need each other. The clergy and monastics come from the laity, after all. Where else do we initially learn of the spiritual life if not in the "domestic monastery," the home, family life, our parents, lay people? Our clergy and monastics are formed first in the world. We support them just as they support us. They need us just as much as we need them. They initially learned from lay people, and can continue to learn from lay people, just as we ought to learn from them and from their way of life.

Blessed be God that we are all members of the Body of Christ and can support and uphold one another throughout our struggle in this world, amidst the trials and temptations of this life! There is no separation in vocation between the laity, clergy and monastics. We all have one vocation. We are all called to live the Gospel. We are all called to live lives of Christ-like love. The situations in which we are called to live that life may differ, but the calling itself remains the same. LOVE! May heaven consume us!

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The New and the Old

There has always been an attitude that has plagued me at the completion of Great Lent and throughout the Paschal Season. Growing up in a Roman Catholic household my mother made sure that we didn't just "give something up" for Lent, but that we examine ourselves and make a change in our lives that we wanted to be permanent. In my case I always struggled with wasting time and was typically lacking in obedience. I would determine through Lent that I would give up the little distractions that kept me from doing the things my parents asked of me. I would give up television, limit my time playing music, focus more readily on my farm chores, etc., etc., etc. I have also always been a big fan of food, so I would limit my portions and any snack times.

This was all well and good, but what happened after Lent? In the joy of the Resurrection I would relax the good things I had been focusing on during the fast. Gradually I would slip back into my old habits and it wasn't long before my parents were disciplining me for my lack of obedience, or exhorting me to stop wasting time and get my chores done.

I noticed as well that I wasn't the only one with this problem. Folks who had given up soda or coffee delved back into their habits with renewed gusto. I watched with sadness as others who had more serious habits and addictions returned to those habits as if to an old friend. What is the point of fasting, I asked myself, if after the fast we simply return to those things that were keeping us from Christ?

Sometimes God gives answers immediately; at other times the answers come after a great deal of time. These questions bothered me throughout my childhood and during my early teens. I practically forgot about them during my high-school years. But today, as I was reading St. Theophon the Recluse's letters to a young lay woman in the book The Spiritual Life and how to be Attuned to It, the saint addressed those very questions.

He had been encouraging her in her ascetical practices and inner examinations all through the fast. Never have I read more beautiful, practical, and sound advice. It seems providential that I should pick up and read this book in the midst of the Fast and immediately following. After giving her a couple of rules to employ while working towards inner peace, he then proceeded to give her two precautions.

In the first precaution he simply warns her not to think that she has already arrived at her spiritual destination just because she has succeeded in doing something good. Throughout our spiritual life we may hit milestones, receive some consolation, find that a fault within us has been destroyed after long struggle, experience long times of inner peace, etc. Never during any of this ought we to think that we have reached our goal in the spiritual life. St. Theophan tells us that it is only after years of struggle that we reach this goal. I would add that we never fully reach our goal in this life because this life prepares us for the ultimate goal in the life to come.

The second warning he gives, however, is not to relax one's inner attentiveness after one has completed a period of fasting and intense inner struggle. He says the two most likely times that we relax our interior efforts are during the Paschal Season and springtime. We decide to give ourselves a little break. After all, it is the time of Resurrection. I worked hard and struggled hard throughout Great Lent, I deserve a little break, right? Be careful, the saint warns us. If we relax our watchfulness then it is likely that whatever demon we struggled with throughout the fast will return with some friends to plague us all the more.

But, this is supposed to be a time of joy. Are not Pascha and springtime moments of grace and new life in our year (whether we're speaking of the secular year or the liturgical year)? Are we not to be rejoicing in the new life that Christ as given us? Of course! We must thank God for His gift of new life, and rejoice in that new life. But the whole point of Great Lent is to put to death the old man, the old life, in order that we might rejoice in the new! How can we rejoice in the new life if, after the Fast, we simply return to the old? Ought we not to guard the new life with all the more intensity so as to avoid a relapse into our old ways? In the Resurrection we have been given the freedom of the Sons of God. We have been given freedom from the slavery of sin. Great Lent reveals to us in a very real way just how enslaved we are. Our struggle against our various habits and vices reveal to us how attached we become to our sins. But when we come to the victory of Christ crucified and resurrected, do we really rejoice in that victory (and in our victory in and with Him) by returning to the "old man?"

So I suppose St. Theophan's advice to us today is, rejoice in the Feast of Feasts and Festival of Festivals. Rejoice in the new life of Pascha and springtime. Thank God for the great gifts He has given us. But thank God by keeping on the mind of Christ, by continuing to become more and more the man born anew in Christ, not by indulging the old man.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Spring Rain

This morning, as I was keeping my regular prayer rule, I sat in awe as a great thunderstorm raged outside. The lightning was bright and streaks of it flashed close to my apartment window. The thunder didn't rumble, it crashed with startling volume. Before one bout of thunder had the chance fade off, rumbling in the distance, there would be three more flashes of lightning and more crashing thunder.

I laughed to myself as I remembered a song often sung among Charismatic groups, "Mercy is falling like the sweet spring rain." Whoever wrote that song, I thought to myself, must not have looked out the window very often during a springtime thunderstorm. There was nothing sweet or gentle about what was going on outside this morning. Had I not been indoors, I would've been terrified, running all helter-skelter trying to find some sort of protection from such severe elements.

As I thought about this, however, I realized that there is a great truth here. God's mercy does fall like the spring rain. Sometimes, however, we may experience that mercy as a dreadful mercy. Who among us cannot relate a time where we went through some horrifying difficulty, only to have our true selves revealed to us during that difficulty? Who among us, during our walk through life, hasn't felt the chaos of life's storm swirling around us.

Even for those of us who strive to live a truly spiritual life, there are moments when we see clearly the darkness that remains within. We walk through the hazy morning of our inner life and don't realize just how much we do not see. Suddenly there is a great flash of lighting and all is revealed. The flash is so bright that every shadow is illumined. Everything is laid bare before our eyes. We even feel our own vulnerability. We feel naked before the great Unknown; unprotected from the great Lightning that flashes within. Flash after flash we see ourselves the way we are, with all of our weaknesses and vices.

Then come the winds and the torrential downpours. The lofty thoughts we have of ourselves are blown over, revealing the shallowness of their roots. The flood waters rise, destroying all that we have given birth to in our hearts. The old man within must die. The staleness, the rot, the decay of the winter months must be washed away in the flood waters. The flood carries it all away. Where it goes, we do not know. Where it goes doesn't really matter. What matters is that it is gone.

As the storm rages, the winds blow, and the waters swirl around us, we feel the chaos with great intensity. We can't see beyond the storm. I don't know if there will be anything left after the storm. We only have a vague memory of life before the storm. All that we know now is the chaos around us. In the midst of this chaos there is only one thing that we can do. "Lord, save me lest I perish!"

At first it may not seem as if the Lord is listening. The storm still rages around us. But over time we notice it starting to taper off. The wind is slowly dying down. The flood waters are slowly subsiding. The torrential downpours taper off. It is then that the sweet gentle spring rain begins.

Suddenly we notice new life around us. Have you ever gone for a walk outside shortly after a storm while there is still a gentle rain but you can see the sun coming out from behind the clouds? All of nature seems to rejoice at the fact that it survived such brutality. The leaves on the trees seem to open wider. The grass looks greener. Colors in general seem more vibrant. And the light from the sun breaking through the clouds seems to shine brighter. Resurrection! I believe this is what the soul experiences when we are given reprieve from the turmoils of life. Resurrection!

Perhaps this is just idle wandering on my part. But I know that this is what I've experienced throughout the struggles of my life. There have been times when I've felt abandoned and alone. I've been in the midst of the struggle and turmoil. I've seen what the lightning has revealed within me and watched as that dreadful mercy washed away what once was. I've stood vulnerable to the elements within and been changed by what was taking place. You come out the other side of that storm and you are changed forever. Hopefully that change is for the better. It seems to me that if one is honestly seeking to live a spiritual life, then that change will be for the better. We may have to endure the storm several more times before we are made perfect, but with each passing storm we are slowly perfected by grace.

Yes, mercy falls like the spring rain. Sometimes that mercy is severe. At other times it is gentle and sweet. We must simply stay focused on the Lord, crying out, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me." With His presence within us, we can truly endure any storm so long as we are close to Him. May heaven consume us.