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.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


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.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Always New Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 15, 2014

New Life and Renewed Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 8, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Where's the Zeal???

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Mere Laymen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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