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.