Compared to the previous experiences of Great and Holy Lent (2003, 2004, and 2005), this one is the most painful, and, I would easily guess, will be potentially the most profitable for me and my household when it has passed. Our “fasting,” our ascetical disciplines for this Lent have been divinely prearranged–we, I, certainly would not have brought our present state upon myself and my family willingly. These eighteen days have been a great struggle, and last night, walking home from the el after teaching class, was some of the most intense I have felt.
I have had many things on my mind, and my wife and I are doing all in our power to resolve this present crisis. However helpless and desperate we feel, we are nonetheless resolved to energetic work and with as much wisdom as we can access.
Among the things on my mind, of course, has been the lessons of all this, these hard, painful, and agonizing lessons. I have, in God’s Providence, been blessed to read the Unseen Warfare with my blogodoxical brothers, and one of those texts came to mind in the last twenty-four hours.
(d) And the fourth method of bringing to life a firm trust in God and of attracting His speedy help is to review in our memory all the instances of speedy divine help described in the Scriptures. These instances, which are so numerous, show us clearly that no one, who put his trust in God, was ever left confounded and with out help. ‘Look at the generations of old,’ says the wise Sirach, ‘and see; did ever any trust in the Lord, and was confounded?’ (Ecclesiasticus ii.10)
—-St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain, Unseen Warfare (SVS Press, 1987/2000), p 86
It goes without saying, of course, that I have finally been brought to realize how faithless I am. I find myself wanting to believe, but somehow resisting believing in these sorts of words:
The Lord hear thee in the day of affliction; the name of the God of Jacob defend thee. Let Him send forth unto thee help from His sanctuary, and out of Sion let Him help thee. Let Him remember every sacrifice of thine, and thy whole-burnt offering let Him fatten. The Lord grant thee according to thy heart, and fulfil all thy purposes. We will rejoice in Thy salvation, and in the name of the Lord our God shall we be magnified. The Lord fulfil all thy requests. Now have I known that the Lord hath saved His anointed one; He will hearken unto him out of His holy heaven; in mighty deeds is the salvation of His right hand. Some trust in chariots, and some in horses, but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God. They have been fettered and have fallen, but we are risen and are set upright. O Lord, save the king, and hearken unto us in the day when we call upon Thee. (A Psalm of David, [Psalm] 19.)
This is, of course, a Christological psalm, about the Christ. But that phrase–”Some trust in chariots, and some in horses”–strikes me. For I have been trusting in chariots and horses–my own efforts and ingenuity. I have, to my shame, not been characterized by what follows: “but we will call upon the name of the Lord our God.”
Oh, of course, I am calling on the Lord now. But even now I find myself putting my trust in “chariots and horses”–first this hopeful resolution to our problems, now that one, or this one–always putting my hope in some particular thing or resolution of crisis than in the one that is the only one who will bring deliverance. It is not for me to dictate the terms or the means of any salvation the Lord will grant us.
Yes, I am utterly faithless.
But I nonetheless heed the Unseen Warfare and call to mind the Scriptures. And I do strongly relate to the emotions of a certain woman of the Gospels.
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)
And there is Mark’s account:
And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. (Mark 7:24-30)
These texts were called to my mind by Fr Patrick’s sermon of a few weeks ago (mp3 file). And much of what he proclaims I drank into a thirsty heart.
But of course, there is also an account from the life of my patron, St Benedict,
Chapter Twenty-one: Of Two Hundred Bushels of Meal, Found Before the Man of God’s [St. Benedict's] Cell.
At another time, there was a great dearth in the same country of Campania: so that all kind of people tasted of the misery: and all the wheat of Benedict’s monastery was spent, and likewise all the bread, so that there remained no more than five loaves for dinner. The venerable man, beholding the monks sad, both rebuked them modestly for their pusillanimity, and again comforted them with a promise. “Why,” said he, “are you so grieved in your minds for lack of bread? Indeed, today there is some want, but tomorrow you shall have plenty.”
And so it fell out, for the next day two hundred bushels of meal were found in sacks before his cell door, which almighty God sent them: but by whom, or what means, that is unknown to this very day: which miracle when the monks saw, they gave God thanks, and by this learned in want, not to make any doubt of plenty.
So, I wrestle with what it means, in quite particular ways, to place one’s trust in God. Not in saying the right prayers, not in achieving a particular outcome to a struggle or crisis. Not in feelings of peace, or in rest from struggle. But in the God who is not tame, for whom none of my good works can change his disposition towards me, but whose acts toward me are (I can only attempt to believe this) always love and mercy.
Lord, Thou hast been our refuge in generation and generation. Before the mountains came to be and the earth was formed and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting Thou art. Turn not man away unto lowliness; yea, Thou hast said: Turn back, ye sons of men. For a thousand years in Thine eyes, O Lord, are but as yesterday that is past, and as a watch in the night. Things of no account shall their years be; in the morning like grass shall man pass away. In the morning shall he bloom and pass away, in the evening shall he fall and grow withered and dry. For we have fainted away in Thy wrath, and in Thine anger have we been troubled. Thou hast set our iniquities before Thee; our lifespan is in the light of Thy countenance. For all our days are faded away, and in Thy wrath are we fainted away; our years have, like a spider, spun out their tale. As for the days of our years, in their span they be threescore years and ten. And if we be in strength, mayhap fourscore years; and what is more than these is toil and travail. For mildness is come upon us, and we shall be chastened. Who knoweth the might of Thy wrath? And out of fear of Thee, who can recount Thine anger? So make Thy right hand known to me, and to them that in their heart are instructed in wisdom. Return, O Lord; how long? And be Thou entreated concerning Thy servants. We were filled in the morning with Thy mercy, O Lord, and we rejoiced and were glad. In all our days, let us be glad for the days wherein Thou didst humble us, for the years wherein we saw evils. And look upon Thy servants, and upon Thy works, and do Thou guide their sons. And let the brightness of the Lord our God be upon us, and the works of our hands do Thou guide aright upon us, yea, the work of our hands do Thou guide aright.
I am finding I have no faith, so I cannot offer any faith to God. But I can begin where I am, and offer all this faithlessness to him. It is all I have to give, and I give it with open hands.
This is my Lent thus far. But though I deeply covet your prayers, I will not ask for them now. It is too tempting for me right now to dwell in self-pity by asking for those prayers.
Instead, I will offer this prayer for you. It is not my prayer, because I have no faith to pray. Nor is it mine to give. In my offering, I am simply miming the reality: the Lord who gives it to you. But please accept it anyway. I do not hold on to it with closed fists. It is offered without condition.
The LORD bless thee, and keep thee:
The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee:
The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)