Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Suffering of Love

Anyone who is seriously pursuing progress in the spiritual life knows that there are ups and downs along the way. We go through periods of great joy and consolation, and we go through periods of great dryness and desolation. Even the lives and writings of the saints attest to this. Anyone with even an introductory knowledge of saints such as Therese of Lisieux or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta know the great trials that the saints have endured in order to achieve the highest goals of the spiritual life. The question becomes, therefore, not whether or not we ourselves will experience these ups and downs, but why do we experience them and how do we deal with them. As always, turning to the wisdom and experience found in the lives and writings of the saints is the best way to find our answers.

Here I would like to turn to the homilies of St. Isaac of Nineveh (a.k.a. "the Syrian") for a little illumination. In his homily "On the Different Ways of Wise Guidance for the Instruction of Disciples" (homily 29 according to A.J. Wensinck, or 30 according to Holy Transfiguration Monastery), St. Isaac reminds us that a loving father does not always deal in the same ways with his child, but adjust his actions and behavior towards his child so as to instruct the child and to teach him right and wrong. St. Isaac says:

"Now the Father of truth deals with His sons in different ways. For the profit of His sons He restrains Himself from uniformity that consists in always showing to them the same face. Nay rather, to discipline them, He secretly withdraws His love. Thus He displays the appearance of a state that does not really exist; but that which He is, He restrains."

Certainly this does not mean that our loving Father, our Abba, withholds His love from us at any given time. But He does manifest His love in different ways so as to help us grow to maturity in the spiritual life. We may experience times of trial and hardship, times of spiritual dryness, times of great suffering, as a withdrawal of God's love, but we must acknowledge that such is not the case. Our heavenly Father's love remains constant. But just as a child must be weened from its mother's breast so as to receive the nourishment of solid food in order to grow to physical maturity, so too must we be weened from the milk of spiritual consolation in order to grow to spiritual maturity through the solid food of pure prayer. And, again, just as the infant experiences this as a painful separation from its mother, so too we will feel this growth as being an absence of God's presence with us along the journey.

St. Isaac reminds us:

"A wise son recognizes his father's care for him as well as his discerning love in the changes of his behavior toward him. The activity of true love, when rightly understood, will appear twofold: in what causes joy but also in what causes sorrow."

Being "wise sons/daughters" of our heavenly Father, we must learn to see our Father's loving care for us in all the joys and sorrows of this life. We are being taught to "love the Giver, not the gift." Our Father gives us good things, but He desires the best for us. And the best gift that He could possibly give us is the gift of Himself. How can we receive such a gift if our attention is focused on these lesser gifts that He bestows upon us? And so, in His love, He must teach us to turn from these lesser gifts - which are still, in fact, very good - so as to turn to the greater Gift. We must learn to be detached from the gifts of this life - including the spiritual gifts that are bestowed on us in this life for our instruction - in order to attach ourselves more fully to the one Gift that truly matters.

But still there is the temptation to view the periods of suffering and dryness as acts of cruelty from our Father. We today have such a low image of fatherhood. Blame it on the culture, blame it on society, blame it on the media, blame it on whoever you want, but our culture teaches us that fathers, if they are not complete buffoons, are little more than cruel tyrants dominating and suppressing those under them in order to maintain some semblance of power over another. How often we carry this skewed image over into our view of God, our loving Abba! And so when sufferings come upon us, when times of spiritual dryness dominate our spiritual life, we receive this as validating our view of our Father as tyrannically exercising arbitrary power over us. It's as if we hear Him say, "Okay, I've given you enough happiness for awhile. It's time for you to suffer." We then completely misunderstand the writings of the saints when they tell us that it is God's good pleasure that we should experience suffering. God doesn't take some sort of sick pleasure in watching us suffer. No parent, seeing their child severely ill, stands by and takes delight in their child's illness. As parents, our first instinct in seeing our child suffer is to work to relieve that suffering. What makes us think that our Abba is not the same? As Christ tells us, "If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more your Father Who is in heaven" (I may be paraphrasing here, of course)?"

Turning again to St. Isaac, listen to what he has to tell us about our Abba's love:

"Love is constantly ready to give pleasure to its beloved; yet sometimes it causes its beloved to suffer for the very reason that it loves much, and it suffers with its beloved even as it causes suffering. It firmly resists the stirrings of natural compassion, fearing lest its beloved should be harmed afterward."

There is the love of our Abba! In order that we might grow to spiritual maturity, our Abba instructs us and allows us to experience difficulties and hardships, as well as joys in our spiritual life. But, as any good parent, when our Abba sees us struggling and suffering His "natural urge," if you will, is to compassion. As we suffer He suffers with us because He doesn't want to see us suffer. He allows the difficulties and the sufferings because He knows that they are for our own good and that, once we have borne them, we will be closer to Him in the end. And yet we can say that our Father suffers with us because what parent doesn't suffer when their child is struggling! At the same time, what parent hasn't restrained themselves from that natural urge, those "stirrings of natural compassion," to intervene in their child's life when they see their beloved one suffering.

Allow me to give a personal example. My son loves chocolate. I know, I know. You may be thinking, "Everyone loves chocolate." No. My son LOVES chocolate. He loves it to the point that we use it as a motivator for potty training, and he is horrified of the toilette for some reason. But if I let my boy eat chocolate whenever he wanted, then he'd develop a whole host of health issues. He wouldn't live a long and healthy life, but would most likely develop some form of diabetes or cancer or heart disease at a very young age. So what do I do as a father who loves his son more than anything? I tell him "no, you cannot have chocolate right now." He can't wake up in the morning and start chowing down on a candy bar. Of course, being two years old, he throws a fit and cries, throwing himself around on the floor. In my heart I don't want him to be so upset and I don't want to see him "suffer" like that. He doesn't understand that too much chocolate isn't good for him. He just knows that chocolate is really REALLY tasty. It's my job, as his father, to teach him what is good for him and what will allow him to lead a long and healthy life. It is my job to help him develop good habits and to avoid or uproot bad habits. It is my job to help him to become the "best-version-of-himself," as the author and speaker Matthew Kelly would say. But that doesn't change the fact that I suffer with my child even when I am, for lack of a better term, causing him suffering by denying him certain things that may not be good for him at the time.

It may seem like such a silly analogy, but it is apt. Remember, we are children in the spiritual life. We like to think of ourselves as mature adults, but really when was the last time you joyfully bore a suffering, a trial, some difficulty, or a setback in your life? When was the last time that you endured suffering without kicking and screaming the whole time? "God, why are you doing this to me?" "God, where are you? Why aren't you helping me?" "Lord, why don't you fix this?" I know nine times out of ten these are my first reactions upon entering into some sort of hardship. So often we like to quote Christ on the cross saying, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me," but then we forget that that Psalm in particular is a Psalm of hope and joyful expectation, not a Psalm of abandonment. If we stick through to the end and endure with patient endurance, we will see the hand of love and the compassion of our Abba even in the midst of our suffering.

There is a famous saying among Eastern Christians that "The Church is a hospital, not a courtroom." Bearing this image in mind, listen to these final words from St. Isaac:

"It is unbecoming to the wisdom of love to give the identical kind of sustenance to its beloved in times of both health and sickness... The man who kills his son by feeding him honey does not differ from the man who kills him with a dagger."

So what are we to take from this? We need to bear in mind always, in times of joy and in times of sorrow, that God is our loving Abba. As the Church prays in the Maronite tradition, we must keep our minds focused on the love of our Abba. In order to mature in the spiritual life we must see our Abba's love for us even in the midst of severe difficulties and sufferings, just as we see and experience His love for us in times of great joy and consolation. God doesn't delight in our sufferings, but He allows them because He knows, as any good father knows, that through trials and difficulties come growth and ultimate victory. May heaven consume us!

God is our Abba, and we keep our minds focused on His love.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Temptations

In the struggle that is the spiritual life, dealing with the myriad of temptations that arise can often become overwhelming. There are temptations that arise from outside of us, and there are temptations that arise from the disordered passions within us. It seems everywhere we turn there is a new thing that is there to tempt us in some way or another. Listening to the news can often tempt us to anger or despair. Modern advertising often gives rise to temptations of unchastity, of greed, of hoarding, of covetousness, etc. There are temptations to judge people simply by the way they look or talk. We can be tempted to withdraw from humanity, not in order to pray for humanity out of love, but out of despair for the human race. With all the things going on in the world today, we can easily be tempted to fear, anxiety, lack of trust in God's loving kindness. The list can go on and on.

Adding to the temptations that arise simply from the world around us, we have the temptations that arise from within us; from our passions and disordered impulses. We have bad habits that we have formed over the years that, as we struggle to overcome them, still beckon to us and allure us. Perhaps you struggle with anger and it seems to arise spontaneously within you even over little things that don't merit an angry response. Perhaps you struggle with sadness and melancholy and have a difficult time offering gratitude for the blessings that God has placed in your life. Perhaps you struggle with a sense of self-righteousness, a "holier-than-thou" mentality.

Whatever temptations that arise from the world around you or from the world within you, the struggle against those temptations can become overwhelming. Oftentimes, as we walk on the sea of life and journey to reach out and grasp the hand of Christ, we, like Peter, take our eyes off of Christ and see only the storms, tempests and tumult around us. How easily we begin to drown in life's vast ocean. How easily the confusion of the world sets in within us when we take our eyes off of Christ. How easily we fall...

We shouldn't, however, fear temptation. Temptation, St. Isaac of Nineveh (a.k.a. "The Syrian") points out, is given to us in order to test our will. Temptation arises in order to test our resolve on the path of holiness, of "excellence." Temptations reveal to us the disorders of our nature, and so spur us on to humility. Temptations call us to turn to God for help and to rely on His aid to deliver us.

We shouldn't seek out temptations. In fact, because of our weakness we ought to avoid all "near occasions of sin." But neither should we despair over temptations when they inevitably arise. Temptation, because of our fallen nature, is a part of life. In fact, we could argue that temptation was a part of life even prior to the fall. Adam and Eve weren't tempted because they fell. They were tempted and then they fell. They fell because they didn't call out to God for deliverance in time of temptation.

Sometimes God allows temptations and impulses to remain in us simply to keep us humble. We are all familiar with St. Paul talking about the "thorn in the flesh" with which he struggled and constantly asked God to remove from him. St. Isaac of Ninevah admonishes us to imitate the importune widow. In times of temptation we must continually cry out to the Just Judge until He delivers us, if for no other reason than because of our importunity.

What are the methods for dealing with temptation? The same methods required for growth in the spiritual life. We must work, meditate and pray. First of all, we must keep ourselves active. We mustn't allow ourselves to be idle. "Idleness is the playground of the devil," I've often heard it said. Keep busy with something, particularly with developing the virtues. Perform all acts with great love. St. Therese of Lisieux was famous for her "little way." Not everyone is necessarily called to great and heroic acts of virtue. But we are all called to perform little acts of virtue with great and heroic love. Do you hate taking out the garbage? Do you hate washing the dishes? Do you hate going to the same dead-end job every day? Do you hate the fact that it seems like house-cleaning is a never-ending task; as soon as you get something cleaned the kids come through like a tornado and before you know it your entire home looks like a toy-bomb went off inside of it? These are all opportunities for us to do little things with great love.

Secondly we must meditate on God's Word constantly. The saints, without exception, urge us to read the Scriptures and the writings of the Church Fathers and mystics every day. We must learn to keep the mysteries of our Faith continually before our mind's eye. We must take the opportunity on a daily basis to read the Bible and the writings of some great saint. We should also avail ourselves of the opportunity to read and meditate on the lives of the saints; to learn from their lives and apply the lessons of their lives to our own lives. Perhaps you have one saint in particular that is a great inspiration to you. Study that saint's life. Learn to imitate that saint.

In our day and age there is almost no excuse for not making time every day to read the Scriptures, the writings of the saints, or their lives. Books are more easily available today than at any time in history. Many of the writings of the Early Church Fathers are available for free online. One can purchase a Bible for next to nothing and begin reading it immediately. And with modern technology we have an even greater access to information today than at any time in the past. Do you listen to the radio while you're driving to and from work every day? Why not listen to a CD program on the Faith, a talk on Christian spirituality, or a lecture on becoming a better father, mother, husband, wife, etc.? As Christians who are on fire for the Lord, we should be looking for every opportunity to hear His Word and meditate on it.

Finally, in order to combat temptation we must develop the habit of continual prayer. We shouldn't only turn to God when we need deliverance from temptation - although God often uses temptation to wake us up and turn us to Him. Rather, we should be constantly turning to God and remembering His presence with us throughout every moment of every day. Maintaining a daily rule of prayer, praying the Jesus Prayer or the Rosary throughout the day, and remembering to thank God for His blessings help to cultivate continual prayer within us. Make it a habit to turn to God and talk to Him throughout the day, just as you would talk to a friend who was visit your home. Most importantly, set aside time in the morning or in the evening that you can devote 100% to prayer.

Even when we "do all the right things," so to speak, we will still fall. We are, after all, weakened by the effects of our personal sin in our life. When we fall, we mustn't lose heart, but should get up and continue fighting to overcome the enemy. I've heard it said before that a saint isn't someone who never falls, but someone who continues to get up after falling. St. Isaac of Nineveh, reference Theodore of Mopsuestia, says: "To abandon hope profits not. It is more expedient for us to be judged on account of special sins than on account of complete abandonment (of the struggle against sin)." In other words, it is better for us to show up before the judgment seat of Christ battered, bloodied and bruised from our struggle against our sins, than it is to show up without any sign of putting up a fight against our sinfulness. So in your struggle, do not lose hope even if you fall a hundred times. God gave us the Sacrament of Confession for a reason. His mercy is eternal, and His love is infinite. Turn to God in times of temptation. Turn to God when you fall. Trust in His love and mercy. Rely on His delivering power. As we pray in the Maronite tradition:

"Lord, may the eyes of our hearts be illumined by your light, and the rising of your day be the source of all good. May our minds be focused on your love. In your kindness you free us from the darkness of night and draw us to the light of day; by the power of your word disperse the evils that come to us. Thus, through your wisdom we will conquer the snares of the evil one who dons the garb of an angel of light. Guard us from works of darkness, and keep our gaze fixed on your resplendent light."

May heaven consume us!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Gift of a Spiritual Director

By way of encouragement, I wanted to relate a story to you from my recent journeys in the spiritual life. Of course, we all know that the great mystics of both the Christian East and West tell us that if we want to make serious progress in the spiritual life, we have to have a spiritual director (mother or father). This person needs to have a great deal of experience in the spiritual life. He or she does not need to be a priest or religious - although having a priest as your spiritual director can also provide the added benefit of being your confessor - nor do the necessarily need to be educated. But they do need to be people of holiness, who have a great deal of experience on the path of spiritual progress.

That's a tall order to expect from a spiritual director, especially in our day and age. Even in what we perceive to be the "golden ages" of Christianity, the saints of those times grieved over the lack of holiness in the world and said that it would be nearly impossible to find one person in a thousand that had the requisite experience to be a spiritual director. If that was true for their times, how much more so for ours!

Nevertheless, it seems to me that God puts the right people in our path along this journey at the right time. I've been fortunate enough to have a few spiritual directors, and a number of other encounters with holy people, that have come into my life at key moments. Throughout my struggles as a teenager I was fortunate enough to have Fr. Nestor, an Australian priest who had studied at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family, and was serving as an assistant pastor at my home parish. He help guide me through the years of "teenage angst" with all its struggles to discover one's purpose and vocation, to maintain one's chastity, to learn one's identity in Christ, and to develop a new sense of purpose and responsibility as one enters adulthood.

An congregation of priests, The Fathers of Mercy, in southern Kentucky were all very helpful in forming me in the Faith through retreats that they preached at local parishes near my home in Indiana. Fr. William Casey, the Minister General of the order at the time, one year invited me to come to their annual priests retreat. I was 17 at the time and actually had to leave the retreat a couple days early because I was flying to Ireland for a music competition. I don't particularly know why God put it on Fr. Bill's heart to invite me down for that retreat; all I remember is being both the youngest person there, and the only layperson. The retreat was lead by Fr. Benedict Groeschell, a Franciscan priest, author, lecturer, and psychologist who is widely known in the Catholic world thanks to his television programs on EWTN. It was Fr. Benedict who really helped me to embrace my personality. Up to that point I really didn't want to be myself. I felt that others were more talented, smarter, better-looking, or whatever than I was and that I had nothing really special to offer the world. But Fr. Benedict, with his background in psychology, helped me to discover who I am in a way that had never been revealed to me before. I was afterward able to embrace my personality and have since been working to develop myself along the lines of the great saints who had similar personalities. I only had the one meeting with Fr. Benedict, so I suppose my encounter with him could be likened to the pilgrims going out into the deserts of the Middle East or the woodlands of Russian to seek a "word" from the hermits and poustiniki who lived there, and then carry that word with them through their lives.

Out of all the directors I've had in the past, however, there is one that has probably had more influence on me than the others; Fr. Giles. Fr. Giles is a Dominican priest. He was a professor of mine while I was attending university at Franciscan University of Steubenville, and for some reason he took an interest in me. We used to share meals together, pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, talk about spiritual matters that were going on in my life at the time, and he would regularly hear my confession. One of the major themes that I learned from Fr. Giles is one that I have spoken of a number of times on this blog; patience. Calm down. Relax. It's going to be okay. Be patient. These were things Fr. Giles would say to me almost every time we would meet for direction. For me, the hardest part of graduating from college was leaving my spiritual father and going out into the world on my own.

God seemed to have different plans. When I moved to Ann Arbor, MI. to help my fiance prepare for our wedding, it wasn't long before Fr. Giles was transferred by his Minister General to serve the Dominican Sisters in Ann Arbor. About a year or two after my wife and I moved to Northern Virginia, I got a call from Fr. Giles informing me that he was being transferred to teach at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. - about twenty minutes up the road from where I was living at the time. In both cases it was good to be able to meet with my spiritual father to talk over matters that had been coming up in my prayer life and to seek his guidance. Sadly, shortly before my wife and I moved to Northern Kentucky, Fr. Giles was transferred to another part of Virginia. I don't know remember being able to meet with him before he left due to my work schedule.

Now that we have been settled in Northern Kentucky for a couple of years, I have noticed some themes that keep coming up in my prayer life. They are themes that seem to require some sort of action, but I'm not sure what, and I don't really know where to turn. So I have been praying for some time now that God would send me another spiritual director. I had been thinking of writing a bishop that I know and have had direction from in the past, but I know that he is busy and I don't want to importune him. I had also been thinking of speaking with a subdeacon at my parish, but again I know that he is busy and I didn't want to importune him either. Every time I would pray that God would send me a spiritual director I would hear this voice in the back of my head, "Be patient, Phillip. Calm down. It's all right."

One day, as I was driving a car to the local gas station to fuel it up for delivery, I turned on the local Catholic radio station. Mass was on. Usually I just skip through because I don't really like listening to Mass over the radio. But this time I thought to myself, "Well, even if I can't participate in the Liturgy, I can always learn something simply by listening to the prayers." It reached the point in the Mass where, during the Eucharistic Prayers, the concelebrating priests all take different parts of the prayer. Suddenly I heard a familiar voice over the airwaves. I didn't recognize it at first, and even when I didn't I couldn't believe it. Could it be that Fr. Giles has been transferred to Cincinnati, just across the river from me?! You see, Mass is broadcast from the local Dominican parish, so I suppose it wasn't a complete impossibility, but still a highly unlikely scenario.

When I arrived home that night I immediately jumped onto the internet to see if Fr. Giles' name had been listed at the local Dominican parish. Sure enough, he is there helping out with the novices. Naturally I immediately sent an email to him and have since met with him, with plans to meet again regularly in the future. As we spoke at our most recent meeting, we came to the conclusion that he had only been in town here for a couple of days before that broadcast. Isn't it funny how God works.

What's my point in sharing this story? We often despair over finding a spiritual director. We morn the fact that there are very few holy people left in this world that are capable of giving us solid guidance as we try to make our way along the inner path of holiness. But do we let that stop us from seeking guidance? And, above all, do we let that stop us from praying with sincere faith that God will send us a guide, trusting that He will send us one in His time? Or do we use this as an excuse not to seek spiritual guidance or to stop the search for a spiritual guide? Even if God sends you just one guide that you only get to meet with once for a brief moment, even that would be worth years of persistent prayer for the sake of growing in holiness. May heaven consume us!

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.