Thursday, April 16, 2015

Images, Images, and more Images

Christ is risen!

Recently, as I've been meditating on the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, a thought has occurred to me. I have spent the past couple of weekends watching videos on the Shroud of Turin. This amazing artifact is, potentially, a physical witness not only to the death of Christ, but also to the moment of His Resurrection. I say "potentially" because the scientific studies conducted on the Shroud are not completely conclusive. I personally believe that the evidence supports the belief that the Shroud is actually Jesus' burial cloth. I encourage you to check out some videos about it. The entire subject is very fascinating.

As I've been studying the subject of the Shroud and meditating on the image the Shroud contains, I came to a realization. In the Christian East there is a strong understanding that mankind was made in God's image and likeness, keeping in mind that there is a distinction between "image" and "likeness." After the fall mankind lost its likeness to God, and the image of God in man was distorted. Now, it is understood that being made in the image of God means that man was fashioned after the pattern of the Logos/Word of God, Jesus. We were originally created as a reflection of Christ. Think of it this way. We often apply the saying of St. John the Baptist, "He must increase and I must decrease," to our spiritual lives. Christ Jesus must increase in us, and our fallen sinful nature must decrease, because only when Christ lives in us are we truly living as we were created to be. In the beginning, mankind was called to be transparent to Christ, to show forth the glory of God in creation simply by living after the manner and pattern in which they were created. As Christ the Logos is pure "yes" to the Father, mankind too was called to be a pure "yes" to the Father after the pattern of Christ. But at the fall man said "no," and so we lost our likeness to God and distorted the image of the Logos within us.

Jesus came to restore our likeness to God and renew the image of God in us. How does He go about doing this? By assuming our own humanity, taking it upon himself even in its fallen state. Jesus became like us in all things but sin, as the Scriptures say. This means that, while He did not sin, He did take on our fallen nature. St. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that Christ became sin, not in the sense that He sinned Himself, but in the sense that He assumed what is ours so that He might redeem it and elevate it. There is a beautiful prayer in the Maronite tradition:

"You have united, O Lord, your divinity with our humanity, and our humanity with your divinity; your life with our mortality, and our mortality with your life. You have assumed what is ours, and you have given us what is yours for the life and salvation of our souls."

What am I trying to get at here? Well, as I meditated on the image of the Shroud I came to realize that through His passion and death Christ became the physical image of our fallen spiritual condition. If you want a sense of what it means that the image of God is distorted in us by sin, then look no further than Christ's passion! If you want a sense of what the tyranny of sin looks like, then look at how the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Roman soldiers treated Jesus during His passion. If you want to have a sense of what the oppression of sin looks like, then look at how Jesus was beaten to a pulp and then forced to carry a cross beam that weighed nearly 200 pounds.

I believe that we have become so accustomed to hearing about the crucifixion of Jesus that it has, in a very real sense, lost its "shock value," so to speak. Similarly we have become so accustomed to hearing about sin that we are missing the horrifying reality of sin in our own lives. When we forget the horrifying reality of sin in our lives, and when the Cross no longer shakes us to our very core, then we cannot possibly hope to grasp and experience the immense love of God for us, and the great hope that is the glory of the Resurrection! Without grasping the love of God for us, and without the hope of the Resurrection, we very easily forget our dignity as men and women created in God's own image and likeness. Without the hope of the Resurrection, we cannot be fully alive so as to show forth the glory of God once more to all creation. This is why Holy Week and the Paschal Season are so central to the life of the Church! May the hope of the risen Christ be with us all.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Lack of Spiritual Guides?

In reading the writings of the great mystics, both those of the East and those of the West, it is not uncommon to find the saints morning the lack of experienced spiritual elders and guides in their times. The temptation is to believe that since such guides were lacking in the days of the saints - the supposed "golden age" of the Church (whatever age we define that as being) - then they must be absolutely non-existent in our own day and age, marked as it is by such rampant sinfulness. There are a number of problems with this viewpoint that ought to be addressed.

The first issue is the presumption that there is a "golden age" of the Church at some point in the past, and that everything in the Church since then has been in a state of decay and corruption. An honest look at Church history quickly disproves this presumption. There were sinners in the Church in the past, just as there are sinners (of whom I am the first) in the Church today. There were saints in the Church in the past, just as there are saints in the Church today. This notion of a "golden age" in the Church often completely ignores the holy people in the Church today; not only the great luminaries that we often hear about in the news, but those holy and humble men and women that we encounter in our parishes Sunday after Sunday. If we truly wish to find a guide for our spiritual life, then we can't ignore the fact that holy men and women exist among us today, just as they existed within the Church in the past.

The second issue that we find here is ignorance over what constitutes a qualified spiritual elder or guide. So often what we are looking for is a wise and aged monk or hermit who sits alone in his cell and prays the Jesus Prayer all day long, doling out pithy spiritual gems to pilgrims who come to him for "a word" as though he is a spiritual Pez dispenser. We seek a St. Seraphim of Sarov, an Optina elder, a Padre Pio, or a St. John Vianney, when often times the very person we ought to be talking to is the housewife who goes about her daily tasks for the love of God, or the gentleman sitting in the cubicle next to ours faithfully fulfilling his daily tasks. Dan Burke, in his wonderful little book on spiritual direction Navigating the Interior Life, has this to say:

"The committed Catholic or seasoned Christian warrior may be seeking the wise old priest-sage who prays four hours a day and has the gift of seeing souls, when they may need a holy layperson who may not have a doctorate in dogmatic theology, but who clearly understands the path of humility and what it means to have a vibrant relationship with Christ." (pg. 20)

Here too we see a misunderstanding of the word "elder." In Greek "geron" (staretz in Russian, or elder in English) does not necessarily refer to a person who is older in years, but to a person who's soul has gained a certain maturity through spiritual experience. The soul could be one of any number of people. They could be older than us, younger than us, or around our same age. The could be a monk or nun, a parish priest, or simply a humble lay person. Really, anyone who has more experience than ourselves in the spiritual life could be considered our spiritual elder. The question becomes, do we have the necessary humility to seek guidance from the day-to-day elders around us whom we may take for granted?

The final issue here is often the presumption that we can make absolutely no progress in the spiritual life without an elder of some sort. Such a presumption flies in the face of the writings of the great mystics. Universally they proclaim to us that it is indeed possible to make progress without an elder, although it is much more difficult. In the absence of an elder, we are told that what is needed above everything else is a spirit of humility. This spirit is brought up again and again in the writings of St. John Climacus, St. Isaac of Nineveh, St. Theophan the Recluse, and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, to name but a few.

St. John Climacus gives us the following advice for maintaining a sense of humility in our prayer life:

"In your prayers there is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babblings of children that has more often won the heart of the Father in heaven." (Ladder of Divine Ascent, pg. 275)

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov tells us that even without a spiritual guide it is still possible to be given the prayer of the heart, so long as we cling to humility and child-like simplicity. In the absence of a spiritual elder, these ought to be our guides.

What are the characteristics of child-like simplicity? Openness, honesty. a lack of subtleties. This is where we find the genius of the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner. One could lengthen this slightly to read: "As man I have sinned, Lord Jesus as God have mercy on me."

This simplicity in prayer must be accompanied by a certain simplicity in the way we live our lives. Nil Sorsky tells us that in the absence of a spiritual guide, we ought to simply dedicate ourselves to the work of God as found in our particular vocations. If you are a monastic, then live your vocation whole-heartedly. If you are a parish priest, strive to ever more fully live your unique calling. If you are a married person, be dedicated to living your vocation in joy and love, not looking for greener pastures elsewhere. By living our vocations, according to Nil, God Himself will guide us into purity of heart and pure prayer.

"We must always in all our activities seek to do all in soul and body, in word or deed and thought as far as our strength allows, to do all godly activities with God and in God... The mind must always be focused positively on God with deep reverence, devotion, and trust in order to do all unto God's good pleasure and not out of vainglory or to please other human beings." (Nil Sorsky: The Complete Writings, pg. 68)

Of course, none of what has been said above means that we ought not to seek a spiritual guide. We ought to seek a guide because such guidance makes progress in the spiritual life much quicker and easier. All of this is just to say that when seeking a spiritual guide we must first acknowledge that such people exist even in our own times: second, we must be humble in our search and be willing to look for a guide in places we hadn't even considered previously: and third, while looking for a spiritual guide we must continue to strive in humility for progress in the spiritual life and not put off such striving. God, our loving Father, will reward our efforts. May heaven consume us!

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Do You Seek?

It is good to know what we are after in the spiritual life. Where are we headed? What is the goal? It is good to examine our hearts, our intentions; to ask ourselves some honest questions and search within our hearts for honest answers. Why do I pray? What am I seeking? Such questions enable us to come face-to-face with ourselves and provide the opportunity for us to purify our hearts of any wrong intentions.

In St. Matthew's Gospel (Mt. 6: 5,6, 16,17) Jesus gives us the example of folks who stand on street corners to pray so that they may be seen by men. He then goes on to speak of others who make themselves look gloomy and downcast while they are fasting so that others will know they are fasting. He then goes on to warn us that these people have had they're reward. Why do you pray? Why do I pray?

These examples may seem a little far-fetched to us today. How many people do you see standing on street corners and praying so that they might be seen and obtain the favor of men? How many people do you know who perform intense fasting and go about announcing it to others? Although such things are rare today, they still exist. Examine your own heart and discern whether they exist in you. We are all in need of constant purification.

So what do we seek in prayer? Over the past week I have been examining books and videos on the Jesus Prayer, and some of what has been presented I have found disturbing to say the least. The Jesus Prayer is often presented as an end in and of itself. To it is often attributed a power that it does not have in and of itself. Sometimes it is presented as if all we need to do is pray the Jesus Prayer and everything in our spiritual life will turn out right. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, or any of the other great Fathers of the Byzantine East know that this is not the case.

For other people the Jesus Prayer is a means to some sort of "mystical experience." Saying the Jesus Prayer gives them some sort of transcendent experience that has an ethereal or surreal quality about it. It takes them to the "mystical" in the sense that it removes them from themselves and from the world for a moment. It helps them escape from the world.

For still other folks saying the Jesus Prayer is about stillness, inner peace. Saying the Jesus Prayer calms their mind. All of us know how our thoughts can at times run away from us. Our mind just races out of control until all we want to do is pull out our hair. We often wish we could just flip a switch and shut our brain down for a bit. For some people, the Jesus Prayer is that switch.

But these things are not what the Jesus Prayer - or any other prayer for that matter - is all about. The Jesus Prayer is about communion, just as all prayer is about communion. We seek communion with God. We seek to enter into relationship with God. We seek the face of God. We seek to know God. True prayer, as the saints point out, isn't about the words that we pray, but about developing a relationship with God. The words that we pray, in a sense, mediate that relationship. The words lay the foundation for building our relationship with God. But at some point, the words must cease, even if only for a moment. St. Isaac (the Syrian) if Nineveh points out that the highest form of prayer moves beyond words, to the point that the words of prayer themselves can become a distraction. This is not a permanent state, and one eventually has to return to the words of prayer, but at the moment that the soul moves beyond words all words must cease otherwise prayer itself ceases.

Prayer is about communion with God Who dwells in us by virtue of our Baptism. As we work to deepen this communion, as we struggle to remain always in God's presence, then we are given the gifts mentioned above. Prayer, true prayer, can lead to inner peace, stillness, "mystical experiences," a drawing up out of the troubles of this world, but these things are not the goal of prayer themselves and they cannot be forced. Peace, stillness, transcendence, etc., are all gifts from God. Our duty is not to seek those gifts, but to seek the Giver. Prayer is the struggle to seek the Giver, to seek an ever-deepening relationship with the One Who is "all in all."

Ultimately prayer leads us back into ourselves and purifies us, because in drawing closer to the fire of God's love all that is imperfect must be melted away. Prayer too leads us back into the world so that, ignited by the fire of God's love, we can be the light in the world and set the world on fire, as Jesus so desired. Prayer doesn't lead us away from ourselves, from others, from the world. Prayer, rather, makes us more sensitive to our need for the purifying fire of God's love in our lives and throughout the world. The power of the Jesus Prayer, as Fr. Lev Gillet points out in his wonderful little book, On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus, is that through it we can invoke the name of God upon all of mankind and all of creation. Invoking God's name is the same as invoking His very presence. And so by invoking the name of Jesus in our lives and in all of creation, we invoke the very presence of God, thereby transforming all of creation into prayer, into relationship with God.

We seek God's presence. We seek his presence in our lives and in our world. God's presence will purify our hearts. His Presence will purify our world. Only the presence of God will bring peace, joy, love, and unity. Only His presence will bring His kingdom. And how blessed is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit! May heaven consume us.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christ is in Our Midst!

Many folks like to argue that the East is "mystical" and the West is "rational" (as though those two are actually opposed to one another). I've argued time and again that anyone who actually believes such a statement has little to no grasp of either tradition. But the more I read the writings of the Fathers, and the closer I pay attention to what is prayed at the Liturgy, the more I realize that East and West are both incarnational! If at times one tradition has emphasized mystical experience while the other emphasized logical argument, this has only been in response to the historical and cultural circumstances at the time. In fact, however, both the mystical and the rational are "subservient," so to speak, to the incarnational. Both seek to find an adequate expression for, and a deeper encounter with, the truth of God-made-man, the Word made flesh.

Ultimately we can never fully express, understand, or experience this great mystery in this life. We are given moments. Moments where we encounter this mystery in a new and powerful way. Moments where we hear the Word speak to us where He dwells in the depths of our hearts. Moments where time stops and the only thing before us is the great mystery of Emmanuel, God with us! We are compelled, then, to give expression to these moments. We are compelled, as Fr. Thomas Loya would say, to make the invisible visible through the physical. Is this not what we are called to do as human persons made in God's image and likeness? At the first moment of creation God makes Himself, the Invisible One, visible through His physical creation, particularly His creation of the communion of persons in man and woman. All of creation manifests God to us and is stamped with His fingerprint. So when we encounter the reality of the Incarnation, we too feel that we must again make this reality present to us here and now. And so we write poems, hymns, and songs; we build churches and create artwork; we use the God-given capacity of our human reason to think through the logical consequences of the realities proclaimed to us in the Scriptures and revealed to us through the Word made flesh. All of this is nothing more or less than our limited way of trying to touch again the very flesh of God-made-man.

What we so often end up doing is focusing so much on the divinity of Christ (and He is indeed divine), that we are blinded to the reality of His humanity. When was the last time you stopped and contemplated the humanity of Christ? I know for me it has been quite some time. When was the last time you have looked into the turmoil within your own heart and then looked to Christ, confident that He understands your pain because He Himself has experienced that same pain? When was the last time you turned to Christ in your joy and invited Him to share that joy with you, know full well that He Himself rejoiced and feasted with His friends and family during His time on earth?

We like to think of "Christ the King," the "Ancient of Days," the "Incomprehensible One," the "Alpha and the Omega," the "Son of God," and a host of other exalted titles. Jesus is certainly all of these things. But He is also "Word-made-flesh," "God-with-us," the "Son of Mary," "Jesus the man," a man! He became one of us and lived like one of us. God became just another face that could easily get lost in a crowd. Imagine that! Jesus walking down a busy modern city street and nobody notices Him because He looks just like everybody else! Jesus, through Whom all things were made, gets lost in the crowd of people who were made in His image!

How great is the humility and generosity of God! Such glorious titles we give Him, and yet He loves us enough to become one of us and to be born in the lowliest of circumstances. The Maronite tradition captures this reality beautifully when it sings on the Sunday before Christmas (Genealogy Sunday):

"Infant Jesus, the Son of God,
has been wrapped in swaddling clothes.
Though a great and a mighty King,
in a manger he now lies.
God, whom heavens cannot hold
nor the seraphim behold,
is embraced in Mary's arms and is fed so lovingly."

At the same Liturgy we have another awe-inspiring example of God's humility. Have you ever thought about Jesus learning to pray? We recall easily the words from the Gospel, "Lord, teach us to pray," but do you have stop to ask, "who taught Jesus to pray?" I always just presumed that Jesus is God and so prayer was natural to Him; literally prayer was a part of Jesus' nature as the second Person of the Trinity dwelling in eternal communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But according to His humanity, Jesus would've had to learn to pray like anyone else. Jesus had to learn to relate to the Father and the Holy Spirit in his humanity, in the very flesh that he had assumed. So who taught Jesus to pray? His mother! In the Hoosoyo of Genealogy Sunday the deacon sings:

"You enriched creation, yet you have become poor, and your mother sang spiritual songs to you as she carried you in her arms."

What a beautiful image! Imagine Mary carrying the infant Jesus in her arms, bouncing and swaying with Him, nursing Him and singing spiritual songs to Him as He fell asleep in her arms. Now think of  how this Child, Who is "God from all eternity" as we pray in the Byzantine tradition, learns from His human mother how to relate to God through His humanity! So great is His generosity that He was willing to be stripped of all His divine glory in order to be with us! So great is His generosity that He was willing to be denied any human glory and to be born in a cave! So great is His generosity that He was willing to be stripped even of His dignity as a human person and to be hung naked on a cross after having had His flesh ripped from His bones and having been abandoned by His friends.

So remember these things the next time that you feel God is removed from our "reality" or from your personal "reality." He is not removed from them. He is closer to our reality - to my reality and to your reality - than we are to that same reality. The next time you feel that God is above and beyond this world, that He is totally "transcendent," remember that He willed to strip Himself of His transcendence and to be born in a cave. He willed to become one of us in all things but sin. He has felt your pain because He has experienced human pain Himself. He has felt your joys because He has experienced human joy itself. He even knows our struggles in learning to pray because He Himself had to learn to pray in His humanity. God is not far from us. God is with us! Chirst is in our midst! He is and always will be!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Acquire the Holy Spirit?

One of the most popular phrases quoted from St. Seraphim of Sarov is as follows: "Acquire the Spirit of peace, and a thousand around you will be saved." I've heard this phrase translated a number of ways, but what is implied in the various translations always seems to be the same; the goal of the spiritual life is to acquire the Holy Spirit. I do not here want to disagree with that statement, but I would like to offer a corrective to the common understanding of that statement.

In his book In His Spirit, Fr. Richard Howard S.J. points out that there is a mentality in the Western world to think of God as something/someone who dwells outside of us, and that we draw closer to God through our own efforts. I would venture to say that this is true not only of Western Christians in general (both Roman Catholic and Protestant), but also of Eastern Christians (both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox), at least those Eastern Christians living in the western world. It is interesting to note, however, that such a concept and approach to God and to the spiritual life are not only contradictory to the Scriptures, but also to the liturgical, spiritual, and theological traditions of both the East and West. Perhaps in the future I will be able to delve into the liturgical texts of the various traditions, particularly that Baptismal texts, to illustrate the point that I am about to make.

What we see from the beginning in the account of God's creation of man is that God breathes His very own life into man. Man's life, from the first moment that he becomes a living being, is the Holy Spirit Himself! God is not something/someone that dwells outside of man, but is Himself the very Source of life within man. At the center of man's being, therefore, is the Holy Spirit!

In his marvelous work The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It, St. Theophan the Recluse, referencing St. Diadocus of Photiki, points out that because of man's fall from grace, the Holy Spirit was removed from man, or rather man drove the Spirit out of him through his first sin. Sin, then, came to dwell at man's core. And thus we get the mentality that man is completely depraved at the very core of his being; that man is always drawn to sin and that his actions always stem from in inner self-interest. This is certainly true of fallen man, but Christ has introduced to us a new order of things. St. Theophan points out that, due to the very nature of our Baptism and Chrismation, the Holy Spirit has again been restored as the Source of life within us, within the very depths of our being, and it is now sin that works outside of us seeking to gain entrance.

The baptismal texts are replete with references to "regeneration," death and resurrection, and rebirth. The various exorcisms prayed over the candidate for Baptism are all geared at driving the Devil and his ways out of the candidate in order that the candidate might be united to Christ! This is a union that takes place within, at the very core of the person. It is interesting to note that in the Byzantine tradition the priest, mirroring the actions of God at the first creation of man, breathes on the candidates mouth three times in the form of a Cross while praying, "Drive out from him every evil and unclean spirit hiding and making its lair within his heart..." What is the breath if not the Holy Spirit, the Breath of Life being breathed anew into the candidate and driving out all the powers of darkness that, to this point, dwelt within the him because of the fall of our first parents!

The point I am trying to make here is that in our struggles in the spiritual life, we are not so much trying to acquire the Holy Spirit, so much as to kindle the Divine Spark that is already alive within us by virtue of our Baptism and Chrismation. This is why, when praying the Jesus Prayer, we try to seek that central and deepest place within us - that place which is traditionally known as "the heart" - in order to find there dwelling within us the presence of the Spirit that we so often ignore, and to fan into a raging fire the Divine Love that we encounter at the very center of our being! This flame, that begins in our hearts, will eventually ignite our lives so that our thoughts, words, and actions all radiate the fire of Divine Love that wells up from within us.

Hopefully I will be able to say more on this in future posts. May heaven consume us!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Life's a Journey

There is a great temptation in our spiritual life to think of progress in prayer and in the spiritual life as a series of stages that we pass through and then leave behind. This is in no small way thanks to the efforts of mystical theology to define or identify certain moments that appear universal throughout the spiritual life. Anyone acquainted with the writings of the great mystics, East or West, knows of the three major stages spoken of by nearly all of them: purgative, illuminative, and unitive. Although these three terms grew specifically out of the Carmelite mystical tradition, the realities that they convey are every bit as present in the writings of the great Eastern mystics. St. Isaac of Nineveh, for example, speaks of three degrees in the spiritual life:  the novitiate, the "middle one," and perfection. But so often in our spiritual lives, however, we get caught up in which stage we may be in, and that becomes our primary focus. All the mystics explain that this should not be the case. The "three stages" are meant simply as guideposts that we glance down at so that we can then continue our journey.

And here is the main point I'd like to make today. Our spiritual life is truly a journey. Although the guides and maps that the saints provide us for the journey are certainly useful and absolutely necessary to keep at hand, we must bear in mind, nevertheless, that this is our journey and we must make it. We can't substitute the relationship the saints have with God for the relationship that we must also have. Although we keep their writings near at hand for guidance, we must ultimately allow the Lord to grasp our hand and lead us on the spiritual way that He calls each one of us to individually. The goal may seem far off, but it is worth the trip. "A thousand mile journey begins with a single step."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church provided me with a great source of comfort as I came to this realization over the last couple of weeks. In paragraph 2599 we are told that Jesus Himself, in His human nature, also had to learn to pray. Can you imagine! The Son of God, Who is "Light from Light, and true God from true God," had to learn in His human nature to commune with His heavenly Father! Jesus had to be formed in prayer over time. He Himself had to enter the school of prayer. He had to learn the basics of prayer so that He could then go out and make that spiritual journey to which all of us are called. And what was the school of prayer in which Christ was formed? Essentially, we are told, Christ's prayer and spiritual life were formed within the domestic church, and through the rhythms and formulas of the public liturgical life of the Temple.

Jesus "learns the formulas of prayer from his mother, who kept in her heart and meditated upon all the "great things" done by the Almighty. Mary taught Jesus to ponder God's acts throughout history as those acts are contained in the Scriptures and celebrated in the liturgy of the Temple. Here we find two important things we must keep in mind. First of all, Jesus learned specific formulas for prayer. Psychologically speaking formulas and their repetition are extremely necessary. There is a saying, "You become what you think about most of the time." By learning the formulas of prayer and repeating them over and over again, we gradually become what we are thinking about. If the goal of the Christian life is to become "little Christs" (that is the original meaning of the word "Christian"), to put on the mind of Christ as St. Paul tells us, then we must allow our minds to be formed by the repetition of the various formulas our Mother, the Church, gives us. As our minds are formed through this repetition, gradually our hearts begin to change, to be transformed by the realities that we ponder. And here we come to the second point. We must learn to "descend with the mind into the heart," as St. Theophan tells us. We mustn't allow the formulas we repeat and the realities that we study in the Scriptures to remain "head knowledge," but rather must allow those realities to descend into the very core of our being. We must learn to meditate on these things in our hearts so that we can be transformed at the core. Christ tells us that it is not that which is outside that defiles a man, but that which is within. Why? Because our outward actions flow from our inner state of being. Again, you become what you think about most of the time. As our hearts are transformed, so too will our lives be.

The other school of prayer at which Jesus learned to pray was in the rhythms of the prayers in the synagogue and the Temple. While we learn at home to ponder these things in our hearts, it is the liturgy that provides the structure for pondering. We find that there is a daily, a weekly, an annual, and a life-cycle rhythm of prayer at which we, just like Jesus, learn to pray, or rather are formed in prayer. We are trained by the liturgical life of the Church to "pray without ceasing." Even our private devotions resonate and echo with the liturgical rhythms of the Church. As I've mentioned in other posts, both the Western Rosary and the Eastern Jesus Prayer grew out of the daily liturgical cycle for those monastics who were either unable to read the Psalter, or who, for various reasons, could not celebrate the Hours with their monastic brethren. These two great devotions to this day maintain that liturgical connection.

So we are formed in the domestic church, and we are formed in the liturgical life of the Church at large. There is one more thing to keep in mind here. Jesus was formed in these two things for 33 years before He went out and began His public ministry! So often we read or hear about these great mystics who seemed to have been given the gift of pure prayer almost instantaneously. All they had to do was ask for it and, BOOM, they're going into ecstasy and praying for hours on end without the slightest awareness of the amount of time that passed. In the meantime, we set aside 15 minutes a day for prayer and, after we feel like we've been there for hours, glance over at the clock only to realize that a mere two minutes have passed. The instantaneous gift of pure prayer, however, is not the norm. It is so much not the norm that not even the Son of God incarnate experienced this! Again, we are taught that He was gradually formed in prayer, and that after 33 years of this formation He finally went out to complete the mission for which He was sent by His heavenly Father. So often we hear that Christ entered fully into our humanity, and even took on all the sufferings of our humanity. How true even in the struggles of our prayer life.

Prayer and the spiritual life are a journey. They are a life-long journey. We know our goal and we hope to one day reach that goal. But our purpose here is to continue on that journey, whether we feel like we are running forward leaping around like a deer, or are trudging through the mud and muck of daily troubles. The point isn't the speed at which we make the journey. The point is that we keep moving forward, allowing ourselves to be formed by our Mother, the Church, through Her liturgical life, and by pondering God's saving work in our hearts. May heaven consume us!

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.