Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for March, 2008

A Prayer in Time of Trial

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I am sunk into the depths and there is no foothold to be found anywhere. I’m nearly worn out with calling for help. My throat is hoarse and my eyes fail me in looking for you. Scorn has broken my heart, and there is no one to grieve with me. Save me, O God. Make haste.

Lord, I did not ask for this present time of trial. Indeed, so far am I from being a disciple of yours that I reject this grace, and strive to pull myself out from under its awful weight. I do this to my own hurt, I know, but the pain of it is so unbearable that almost any other pain is more endurable than this.

The loss here is all around me. I stand in a blighted field that stretches beyond the horizon. I see no one else beside me. Gone is the unity that once was. Gone all the picture of the world that I once had. Gone the future for which I once dreamed. Gone the safety and security of my little ones, those so dear to my heart. Truly the locusts have come and devoured all that lives. And I fear lest all that I am, and have, and once was, will be swallowed up in this dessicated death.

I know that I should view this differently. I know that I should not trust my human senses and reasonings and intuitions to give me an accurate view of what is truly real here in this mean time. I know that I should believe that this is the loving correction of an utterly loving Father, and that this now is a not yet which works my salvation. But my faith fails me. The prayers I pray are prayed with grit-teeth resolution that to fail to pray would only invite more testing. But they are a rearguard action at best, from a heart devoid of piety because of the cacophony of the crunching and screeching which this soul-pressing produces.

I want to move beyond this myopic self-preservation. I want to trust that this time of straitening is suffused with divine love. I want to pray better. I want, I think, to be a disciple. But this pain is so great, and my weaknesses greater still. I am a prodigal, come to himself, but unable to rise and return to the Father. I am in darkness and do not know my way.

But you tell me that your grace is made perfect in weakness. Then you must perfect it in me. I do not know how to do this. I do not know how and for what I ought pray. I find myself unwilling to accept your providence of the day and hour and minute. But this is not the self I want to be.

I want to be your child. But the waters have come up to my neck and there is no foothold to be found anywhere. Save me, O my God. I need you. Help me. Make speed. Hasten.

Read Full Post »

The Mother of God

0626tikhvinvirgin1.jpg

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27 NKJV)

The Church has long honored the Mother of God, and has taken this text as emblematic of Christ’s Mother being given to us as our Mother as well. Because she bore in her womb very God of very God, she is blessed and honored by faithful Christians. As Mother of the King of Kings, she is the antitype of the Old Testament Queen Mother, and is properly called the Queen of Heaven. Whereas Bathsheba bowed to her lord, King David, his son, the King Solomon bowed to Bathsheba, honoring her as queen mother. This type is fulfilled in Mary, the Mother of Christ. She is who and what she is by virtue of God’s grace on and in her. And in that grace, she becomes Mother to us all.

Those of us who have had loving earthly mothers, those of us who have felt the fierce advocacy of our mothers for us against all that and those which would harm us, those of us who’ve seen our mothers tears, have been given a glimpse into the sort of Mother Mary is for us. There is no mystery here how and why our Lady is called our only refuge, our champion leader, our fierce protectress. These are all qualities of our earthly mothers–can we not recall for whom we cried out in the night against our child terrors?–and therefore they are the qualities of our Lord’s Mother as well.

The icon of the Theotokos which adorns our parish’s iconstasis (which is not the icon depicted above) has become very dear and precious to me. I have lain flat on my face before it in tears. I have kissed it. I have poured out my prayers before it. I have prayed the supplicatory canon, the Rosary and my own prayers there in that spot. The gaze of our Lady which looks at me from that icon is so tender, so full of sorrow, it cannot be that she does not know my own trials and struggles. And yet, clinging to her is her Son, my Lord, and with the tilt of her head she draws me toward him, ever reminding me he is at the center of all things. She weeps with those of us who weep, and takes all our prayers and grief to her Lord and ours.

The Theotokos has always been a part of my coming to the Orthodox faith. Only a few months after I had made my resolve, while on retreat, I prayed the Akathist hymn for the first time. That prayer cemented my relationship with her, though the depth of that relationship would take some time to grow. I prayed the Rosary from time to time. I prayed the Akathist hymn now and again. And there have been several direct answers to prayer attributable to her intercessions, not the least of which is our daughter Sofie. What her intercessions are working of late is a mystery unfathomable to me now. But in these last several weeks, the depth of my relationship with our Lord’s Mother has grown considerably. She is present in very real ways to me, encouraging me in my prayers, strengthening me, assuring me of her protection of me and my daughters and us all.

I do not know if my experience is unique among us Protestant converts to Orthodoxy. Many of us, though not so much myself, come to the ancient Christian Faith with some considerable degree of “mariaphobia.” But there is no getting around the place of Mary in the worship, the faith and the life of the Church. I am so grateful I have come to understand and experience this so soon after my chrismation.

I’m sorry to speak in such directly personal terms, but I felt compelled to speak of the debt I owe to, and my growing love of, our Lord’s Mother. I would encourage my readers themselves to deepen their own relationships with the Blessed Virgin. In so doing we honor our Lord.

Read Full Post »

The Mystery of Prayer: Consolation and Cross

Because in prayer we have to do with a Trinity of Persons, and not some cosmic divine process, there is a certain mystery to prayer, and in prayer, that continually confounds our best understandings. We know, by virtue of dominical revelation and authority, that our Father in heaven cares for us deeply and intimately. We need not be anxious about our needs. We need only place all our trust in the One who knows how to give good gifts to his children. But we also know that if God is our loving Father, we will receive from him the merciful correction that the best of earthly fathers give to their own children. So, on the one hand, we know we will receive that which we need, indeed, good gifts, but yet we also know that we will receive correction for our misdeeds and sins.

This truth is perhaps the most difficult to receive at the time one most needs it, which is to say, when one is in the midst of one’s own hurt and pain. What one wants most of all is not correction but healing. What one wants most of all is consolation not a cross. But what one finds is that even if one suffers injustice, even if the pain one endures is not directly of his making, still and all, it is for his correction.

After all, who can tell the chain of cause and effect back to this or that sin, or these several sins, that set in motion, however indirectly, the choices and actions which have brought one unwillingly to the present moments of the soul’s pressing? There is no private sin, there is no sin that does not have its effect on our brothers and sisters in Christ, indeed all our fellow men. Who is to say that that moment in which one lost one’s temper at the customer service counter was not just then the skandalon, the stumbling block that set in motion a long series of choices on the part of our brother or sister that drew them further away from Christ.

Do not misunderstand. We all bear our responsibilities for every careless word and for all our actions, for we all are creatures of freedom and if we are in slavery it is because we have freely chosen such a bondage. But there is a mystery here that I am unable to exegete. And its crossroads runs through the center of our individual hearts.

I wonder–which is to say, I wonder because I do not know–if that is why the Church, in her wisdom, when giving us the prayers of supplication to Our Lady, also gives us in those prayers the confessions of our sins. For though the prayers have, as part of their beginning, the following:

Never, O Theotokos, will we cease to speak of they powers, unworthy as we are. For if thou didst not intercede in prayer, who would have delivered us from so many dangers? Who would have kept us free until now? Let us never forsake thee, O Lady, for thou dost ever save thy servants from all perils.

. . . they actually start with these words:

To the Theotokos let us now run most earnestly, we sinners all and wretched ones, and fall down, in repentance calling from the depths of our souls: O Lady, come unto our aid, have compassion upon us; hasten thou, for we are lost in a throng of transgressions. Turn not thy servants away with empty hands, for thee alone do we have as our only hope.

And to underscore this point, the rubrics tell us to pray this twice.

As I say, I wonder at this. This is not the therapy we worldlings have come to understand. All we know is the surcease of pain, and grade such therapies in terms of how completely we either can be cured of such pain or narcotized against its presence. But the God who was transfixed on a piece of wood gives us another therapy, one in which, if I am not mistaken, for the good of our soul pain is to be embraced, for it speaks to us of the truth of things. It tells us of the complex interlocking realities of our human relationships, of how both our healings and our woundings of one another extend far beyond the limits of our perceptions and knowledge. It is, to use another metaphor, the flip of a butterfly’s wing which sets in motion the tsunami of grace or of desolation.

The locus of this divine therapy is, I think, prayer. If for no other reason than that we could not endure some of the pain our fellow human beings unleash on us apart from the efficacy of the divine encounter in prayer, this alone would be reason enough. But, unless I am wrong, it also seems to me that the pain we endure is not as effectively redeemed if we do not grab hold of it, bleeding, and drag it into the prayer closet with us. It is intolerable. It is utterly distracting. Its psychic noise drowns out for us the voice of God, so that all we hear is the awful silence of divine mercy. But we may stand there with it, holding it as it sears us, and we may cry out in our union with Christ, my God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?

If we do this, as horrible as such a task is, I think we can be saved. Quite frankly, I just do not know how otherwise we will be saved. Surely we want justice, but justice alone will not satisfy us. Surely we want victory over the enemy, but victory alone will not satisfy us. Surely we want healing and restoration and reconciliation, the reunion of our human covenants, but such things of themselves will not heal us. We do not know what it is to suffer. That is to say, I do not know of such things. But what we do want and need is the Holy Trinity present in our hearts. Failing that, we have nothing. Having only that, we have everything.

I know absolutely nothing of how God can console us as we bear our crosses, indeed, perhaps how he consoles us with our crosses. These crosses, even these crosses of injustice, purge us of that which is not God, giving us the paradoxical “more” of the infinite Trinity. Because I am not the sort of Christian I should be, I do not welcome this present cross. I am not, God help me, thankful for the present trials. But I know I should be. I know that there is a mystery here I cannot fathom. I know, that is to say, I cling desperately to the fragile belief that, this is somehow in some way for the good of my own soul, the souls of my daughters, my wife, all those I know and love. But I just don’t know how to bring together cross and consolation. Even in prayer.

Lord help me. Lady pray for me.

Read Full Post »

The Mystery of Our Condition

I do not know what it means to suffer. But if I could imagine what might be among the most difficult kinds of suffering to undergo, it must surely be that sort of pain which the fracturing of our human relations with one another brings. In his inscrutable wisdom, God took the betrayal of David’s son Absalom, which David crystallized in the fortieth psalm (forty-first in the Hebrew), and set it as the type of Christ’s betrayer, joining David’s own human suffering to Christ’s and thereby redeeming David (and us all).

It is the dissolution of those human bonds which tears at the fabric of our souls, our hearts, our minds. As the tearing apart of flesh from flesh, bone from bone, such pain disorients the mind and the heart. Where once the boundaries were clear, the foundations firm, suddenly the vision blurs and the ground becomes as quicksand. Where once no thought was given to self-preservation, indeed, most every thought was handed over to self-giving, at once one finds no bearing, no course by which to navigate alien actions and strange moods, and the backward glance becomes a reflex.

Who can say how this comes about? Whereas on one level the surprise is sudden and wrenching, unlooked for, yet the reaping of such a harvest comes only after length of days and weeks and months, where one thought was entertained, and then another. These became a constant mental state, the culture of a soul, and then the heart, and with it the capacity for choice, changes and becomes something different. The change can be so gradual that the morphing of such a soul goes unnoticed by all, even by the one transformed, until it seems even to such a one that this has been his inner life all along, this is his true self. The other, former self, the one that ran in different, light-filled ways is now the “false self.”

By such degrees, by such distortions, then, are our souls held captive. And some of us will be free of such delusion and its darksome consequences only with great and painful difficulty as God fights for us. More terrible yet, some of us will refuse such freedom.

The frightening reality of this is that this is each of us. Our human condition is such that none of us is exempt from such a darkening of our very selves. The change is so gradual, so seductive, that we never notice it at all. Therefore, such a reality demands of us a constant vigilance and askesis, St. Paul’s “pray without ceasing.”

Such prayer, though, goes far beyond, though it cannot leave behind, the words of the prayer books and the liturgies, the unspoken groanings of the heart. Such prayer becomes grafted to one’s heart and soul, until the prayer is more like a constant way of being than a deliberate action undertaken. Or, it seems to me that it may be something like this. I really do not know. I am so very inconstant in prayer, and must rely on the external and deliberate actions if I am to pray at all.

And only prayer, of any sort, can save us from such soulish devolution. Even more so for those who stand in that psychic plot of ground shared by David. The seduction here is more terrible yet, for the aggrieved are ever dangerously close to self-righteousness and self-justification. It is only with great and unrelenting forcing of the will to enter the pain and the hurt and to remain there, and to remember one’s sins, even and especially as the aggrieved–only so may we have a hope of being delivered from such damning self-justification.

This is the most difficult of all, I suppose. How does one grasp the white-hot iron of such hurt so deliberately? How does one immerse oneself in this excruciating present moment, to allow it to wash over oneself, even at the cost of drowning in it, and to do so freely?

I’m afraid I really cannot say. I do not know. But I suspect that there may only be one way that that is possible, only one motivator quite strong enough for one to forget oneself and one’s wounds, and to stand in the swirling chaos. Love. Love of God, who is there in the center of that tornado and who bids us come and embrace him. And love of our neighbor, love of that one who has broken us. That one whom, against all human sanity and categories, Christ himself reaches forth to draw to himself. For if we embrace Christ, we cannot but embrace the other.

Lord have mercy. I am grasping in the dark here. May the Lord lead me, and us all, into the truth of these things.

Read Full Post »

Praying in Faith

Stating the obvious, these last several posts on prayer have been my own personal working out of my thoughts and experiences of prayer. I no doubt carry a universalizing tendency in all these reflections, but I trust my readers to discern what is my own experience from theirs, and further to take all these things before their own priests and spiritual fathers.

It has become very clear to me in this recent time of pre-Lent and Lent, that my understanding of prayer and my experience of faith have been distorted and truncated. Let me be clear, there was no evil intent in how and what I was taught regarding faith and prayer. Indeed, far from it. But, nonetheless, those distortions have severely affected what I know of prayer and how I practice it. For example, I grew up with an understanding that one ought not pray for that which God would not do. Of itself, a rather innocuous truism. However, for whatever reason and cause, that truth was applied to my practice of prayer such that the list of approved requests one may ask of God was rather small. Somehow, I am not sure how, it became lodged in my thinking that I could not pray that anyone would act in a particular way, for if I did I would be asking God to, in some way unclear to me, violate their freedom to choose to do some act or another. Less than half a moment’s reflection on this weird stricture would reveal that we could never ask God that someone would convert to Christ, and, more to the point, it would mean that a vast majority of biblical prayers would be invalid. Even Jesus’ own. After all, didn’t Jesus himself pray for St Peter that his faith would not fail?

The aberrations of one’s upbringing sometimes die hard, and so I have been brought to this Lent, in part, I think, so that this cancerous thought might be irradiated with struggle so as to be excised.

But another struggle I’ve had, and one I’ve chronicled often on this blog, is my move from a faith that is primarily intellectual, doctrinal, discursive, to one that is characterized by simple trust, one that is of the heart, that has tasted the goodness of God, one that clings to God. I do not want to in any way disparage the intellective aspects of life in God, including the importance and centrality in our experience of doctrine, dogma and theology proper. One cannot read the Conciliar explications of Christology and not have some grasp of the importance of the intellect. But when one has been formed by an experience in which the pendulum has swung hard in one direction, one feels quite strongly that an equally strong reaction is called for to bring balance.

Thankfully, the Lord has kept me from such an extreme reaction. But nonetheless, the moderation of an original extreme, when it happens by slow inches, can be agonizing in the extreme. Doubt becomes a too-familiar doppelganger. One feels split in half. The cries of the father of the demonized boy that Jesus and the Three meet after the events on the Mount of Transfiguration, is the heart-cry of such a soul: “I do believe! Help Thou my unbelief.”

And so, since prayer is the absolutely essential element in one’s personal union with God, these twin deformities shape and twist one’s experience in prayer in ways that make the struggle so much the harder and more painful. On top of the experiences of trial that one undergoes by virtue of life in the world, is added the extra layer of intensified pain in which one seeks the liberation of praying in faith.

This is, it is seeming to me, what Great and Holy Lent is for. Oh, to be sure, this is a pervasive experience throughout the year and within one’s daily living. But Lent is framed in such a way that we are called to pray in the desert with the Lord. We are called, as were the Twelve, to come away for a little while by ourselves with the Lord. But instead of the refreshing oasis and the revelation of God, we are called into the trackless wastes and into the divine hiddeness. In fact, more than called, but, in union with our Lord, compelled by the Spirit. After all, only those with great love would go willingly.

The wildness of the environment seems to me to call forth a similarly unsafe wildness in prayer. We are taken out of our norms, into something like chaos. We are taken from the safe into an environment we may not survive. The sort of prayer prayed in the comfort of one’s home in the pre-dawn morning, is not the same sort of prayer, qualitatively, as the prayer prayed when one is racked by hunger and thirst, where one is taken beyond one’s own resources, where one has no one and nothing else than the Holy Trinity and his ministers. This forced trek into the blasted expanse causes one, it seems to me, to give up the comfortable intellectual notions one may have of prayer and faith. Stripped of seemingly everything, including the niceties of conceptual debate and gamesmanship, one simply cries out from nothing else but the heart, “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me.” “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child, for I am afflicted. Hear me speedily, draw near unto my soul, and deliver me.”

The trial undergone here, is not for the purposes of increasing the efficacy of one’s prayers, as though a little more suffering and God is more likely to hear and to answer. Nor is it necessarily the transformation of one’s prayers themselves. It is rather, or so it seems to me, God drawing us closer to himself. This trial is, if you will, the grasp of God. Praying in faith is not praying with doctrinal precision. Praying in faith is not praying with formal perfection. We do not need to know how and for what we ought pray, to be able to pray. For we have this promise that the Spirit himself will intercede for us. Praying in faith, I think, is the spreading wide of one’s arms, in a place of danger, hunger, thirst and death, and leaning hard into God’s embrace.

In this embrace, one is not guaranteed greater faith. But one needs faith no larger than a mustard seed to see moutains moved and cast into the sea. In this embrace, one is not guaranteed a richer prayer life. As though the goal of such prayer is its self-increase. Indeed, while one may suppose that one may experience more of God more deeply, it does not seem to be the case that we are even guaranteed an awareness of such a sweet consolation. We may continue to hear silence and experience hiddeness. All of this must certainly be lodged in God’s inscrutable love and wisdom.

And yet . . . I don’t know. I think it somehow cannot be the case that this burning away of the chaff of one’s faith and prayer, this being enfolded in the arms of God cannot have some real effect, some experience of peace and joy. More, I cannot think that somehow, those deepest and dearest requests, over which we have prayed and prayed and wept and hurt, day after day, may not in some way, from God’s vast love and mercy, find at last their yes, our heavy-laden selves brought at last into the rest which our Lord himself extends to us, where our tears remain, but drained of their pain and bitterness, refined by our struggle and full now of joy.

May it be so, Lord Christ. Heal us. Make us whole.

Read Full Post »

Now Enoch lived one hundred and sixty-five years, and begot Methusaleh. After he begot Methusaleh, Enoch was well-pleasing to God for two hundred years, and begot sons and daughters. So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Thus Enoch was well-pleasing to God, and was not found, for God translated him. (Genesis 5.21-24)

Enoch pleased the Lord and was translated
As an example of repentance for all generations (Sirach 44.16)

There was once a man pleasing to God and loved by Him,
And while living among sinners he was taken up.
He was caught up lest evil change his understanding
Or deceit deceive his soul.
For envy arising from lack of judgment obscures what is good,
And a whirling of desire undermines an innocent heart.
He was made perfect,
For in a short time he fulfilled long years,
For his soul was pleasing to the Lord;
Therefore, He took him early from the midst of evil.
Yet peoples saw this but did not understand,
Nor take such a thing to heart,
That the Lord’s grace and mercy are with His elect
And that He watches over His holy ones. (Wisdom 4.10-15)

By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, “and was not found, because God had taken him“; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God. But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him. (Hebrews 11.5-6)

Our priest, Father Patrick, preached on the Sirach text at Forgiveness Vespers on Sunday, emphasizing that Enoch knew far less than we do, this side of Pentecost: that God is, and that he rewards those who diligently seek him. Such was his diligent search for God, such was his faith, and trust in God, that God took him out of our sinful world.

This sort of trust has struck me today, especially in this present time of the start of Lent. I have been confronted by these texts, and Father’s sermon, as well as my own introspection this week, and made to know how little I really trust God. I pray to God and ask his blessing for this or that, to make this or that change and answer this or that request. But then I go out and act as though I never brought these matters to God, trying to control events and to achieve the very blessing for which I asked God. Or, in making my requests, I do so with anxiety instead of assurance; my persistence arising from the feeling of needing to control rather than persisting because of my need and my assurance of God’s love and goodwill for me.

And that is, I think, really what God wants. He wants me to cast myself into the unfathomable depths of his love and mercy; not standing on the precipice of doubt and control, wanting his love and mercy, but unwilling to have it except on my terms. No, unless I am mistaken, my task is to fling myself out into the darkness of his love, crying “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” as I descend into the depths.

Lord, have mercy.

Read Full Post »

A Reminder about Prayer and Fasting

Then one of the crowd answered and said, “Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid. So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not.”

He answered him and said, “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to Me.” Then they brought him to Him. And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.

So He asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?”

And he said, “From childhood. And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him. But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.”

Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!” Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him. And he became as one dead, so that many said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.

And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:17-29 NKJV)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 461 other followers